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Southern California Edison Has Been Blamed For Starting One Of The Largest Wildfires In California History

A power line snapped and created an "electrical arc," sparking one of the largest wildfires in modern California history, investigators said.

Last updated on March 13, 2019, at 9:14 p.m. ET

Posted on March 13, 2019, at 4:44 p.m. ET

Noah Berger / Associated Press

Flames consume a home on Via Arroyo as a wildfire rages in Ventura, California, on Dec. 5, 2017.

Another major utility company is to blame for starting one of California's largest and most destructive wildfires, investigators announced Wednesday.

Southern California Edison equipment sparked the Thomas fire in December 2017, devastating coastal communities in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and killing one resident and a firefighter, officials said. In all, the wind-driven blaze engulfed more than 281,000 acres and destroyed 1,063 structures.

About a month later, storms in the newly charred, vegetation-stripped hills of Santa Barbara triggered massive mudflows in Montecito, which killed 23 other residents.

After a 13-month investigation, the Ventura County Fire Department and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that on the dry, windy night of Dec. 4, one of the utility's power lines snapped and slapped against another energized line, creating an electrical arc and sending hot sparks into the brush below.

"The electrical arc deposited hot, burning or molten material onto the ground, in a receptive fuel bed, causing the fire," officials said in a statement.

In October, SoCal Edison said its electrical equipment could be at least partly to blame for the wildfire, which burned for 40 days and, at one point, was being fought by 9,000 firefighters and other personnel.

But the utility challenged the conclusion that it was fully responsible for the blaze, arguing in a statement that it has evidence there were two ignition points that night, which "led to the two fires that together are commonly referred to as the Thomas fire."

SoCal Edison says it has not seen evidence linking its equipment to the initial spark in Ventura County, which, the company said, started 12 minutes before its system registered a problem and 15 minutes before what firefighters noted in their report.

SoCal Edison also claims county firefighters failed to preserve footage from 11 of 12 remote cameras in the area that could have shed more light on the matter.

"While SCE greatly admires the first responders and members of the firefighting community who bravely responded to the Thomas fire, the company is disappointed that VCFDā€™s investigators failed to preserve critical evidence and seemed to ignore best practices in conducting their origin and cause analysis," the utility said.

Brian Van Der Brug / Getty Images

At the time, the Thomas fire was the largest in California's modern history until the Mendocino Complex fire, which ravaged Northern California from July to September.

The full cost of the Thomas fire has yet to be determined. However, Ventura County Fire spokesperson Heather Sumagaysay said officials have estimated the blaze caused $70 million in damage to public infrastructure and $1 billion to $2 billion in damage to private property.

Cal Fire has estimated that the cost of fire suppression efforts alone topped $177 million.

SoCal Edison will now also be on the hook for the scores of insurance claims filed by victims of the Thomas fire, which have totaled about $1.3 billion, as well as from residents who lost their homes in the ensuing mudslides.

Firefighters contained the Thomas fire on Jan. 12, 2018, just days after massive mudslides devastated communities still recovering from the blaze. The charred land quickly gave way after heavy rains, killing at least 21 people.

SoCal Edison could be found to have violated several penal codes, including involuntary manslaughter, according to the report, which is now in the hands of the state attorney general, Sumagaysay said.

The announcement of SoCal Edison's involvement comes as California's largest utility, PG&E, continues to deal with the fallout from its role in starting a spate of deadly wildfires in the north. Last month, the utility also said it believes its equipment likely started the Camp fire, which nearly leveled the rural town of Paradise and killed 85 people in November.

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