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3 Lawsuits Blame Southern California Edison for Thomas Fire

Utility company accused of negligence and causing massive blaze in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties

Three lawsuits have been filed in Ventura County Superior Court by people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the Thomas Fire, alleging that Southern California Edison negligently started the 281,893-acre blaze. Click to view larger
Three lawsuits have been filed in Ventura County Superior Court by people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the Thomas Fire, alleging that Southern California Edison negligently started the 281,893-acre blaze. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Three lawsuits filed in Ventura County Superior Court allege that Southern California Edison negligently started the Thomas Fire, the largest officially recorded wildfire in modern California history. 

“Plaintiffs believe that SCE’s employees’ and/or contractors’ construction activities caused the ignition of dry vegetation at (a) construction site, which set off the massive wildfire” about 6:20 p.m. Dec. 4, one of the suits alleges.

The construction site was in the canyon behind the Ventura Ranch KOA Holiday campground near Steckel Park outside Santa Paula, states a suit that was filed Dec. 15.

Los Angeles County-based Edison declined repeated requests for comment on the lawsuits.

The Dec. 15 suit was filed by Westlake Village attorney Alexander Robertson on behalf of nine residents whose homes in Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai were either destroyed or damaged in the fire. 

The suit also names as defendants the city of Ventura and the Casitas Municipal Water District because of what it alleges was a lack of water pressure to fire hydrants in Ventura and Ojai to enable firefighters to battle the blaze and save homes. 

Ventura City Attorney Gregory Diaz said Tuesday that the city hadn’t been served with the lawsuit yet, and thus he was declining to comment.

Casitas General Manager Steve Wickstrum said that because “it’s pending litigation, there’s no comment coming from the district. Nothing to say at this moment.”

Another lawsuit filed Dec. 13 by four Ventura residents whose homes were damaged in the fire also alleges Edison negligently started the blaze.

“Defendants’ electrical lines and/or equipment caused the Thomas Fire,” states the suit, filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by the Ventura law firms of Weilbacher & Weilbacher and the Law Office of Ball & Yorke. This suit does not name Ventura or Casitas as defendants.

Most recently, on Dec. 22, Robertson filed another suit against Edison on behalf of an Upper Ojai couple, Mark and Debra Scantlin.

The suit alleges a pole-mounted Edison transformer on Koenigstein Road adjacent to the Scantlins’ property exploded about 7 p.m. Dec. 4 around 30 to 45 minutes after the Thomas Fire broke out near Steckel Park about five miles away.

The resulting fire destroyed the couple’s home, the suit states. Mark Scantlin is a veteran firefighter now with Federal Fire Ventura County.

“The Koenigstein (Road) fire was caused by SCE’s negligence,” the suit alleges. “Defendants failed to properly inspect and maintain electrical infrastructure and equipment which they knew, given the existing Santa Ana wind and Red Flag warning conditions, posed a risk of harm to the plaintiffs and to their ... property.

“Defendants were aware that if the transformer on Koenigstein Road exploded and/or caught fire, the likely result would be a catastrophic wildfire,” the suit alleges.

All three suits seek unspecified monetary damages to be determined at trial.

Capt. Stan Ziegler, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department, said Wednesday that the cause of the Thomas Fire remains under investigation.

He said firefighters initially responded to the Steckel Park area at 6:26 p.m. Dec. 4. He confirmed that a second fire broke out in Upper Ojai and eventually merged with the fire that erupted near the park.

“They’re the same fire — the Thomas Fire,” Ziegler said. “The exact details (of the Upper Ojai fire), I don’t have, and that’s still under investigation, as far as the time frame and the cause and the exact location. Those are all details that will be announced when the investigation is concluded.”

According to plaintiff Kerry Tormey, for several weeks before the Dec. 4 start of the fire, Edison employees and contractors had been working in the canyon behind the Ventura Ranch KOA Holiday campground near the Comcast satellite facility off Pine Grove Road. Tormey is an assistant manager at the campground.

An Edison representative met with campground managers weeks before the fire started, gave them his business card and explained that the utility would be working on a “big project” in the canyon behind the campground for the next month, according to Tormey, a plaintiff in the Dec. 15 suit.

The canyon is the approximate location where campground employees say they first observed the fire about 6:20 p.m. Dec. 4, the suit states.

“Plaintiffs are informed and believe that SCE’s employees and contractors were working on this ’big project’ only hours before the Thomas Fire broke out,” the suit states. “The Thomas Fire was caused by SCE’s negligence. ...”

The four-plaintiff lawsuit filed by the Ventura law firms also uses similar language in accusing Edison of starting the fire.

The nine-plaintiff suit accuses Ventura and Casitas of damaging or destroying the plaintiffs’ properties because of the alleged lack of water pressure to fire hydrants.

The suit states that as the fire approached Ventura in the late-night hours of Dec. 4 and the predawn hours of Dec. 5, water-pumping stations owned and operated by the city lost electrical power and the city didn’t have properly working backup generators on hand. It also alleges pumping stations owned and operated by Casitas, which provides water to fire hydrants in Ojai, also lost power and that backup generators did not work.

Other plaintiffs in the suit are George and Cheryl Lewis, Alton and Mary Louise Gebhart, Geoffrey Marcus, Katherine Conner and Kevin and Katy Vanderwyk.

The four-plaintiff suit was brought by Lance and Janet Melring, Braun Centinio and Julie Moreno.

Robertson predicted that the lawsuits, and more that he plans to file against Edison, will get consolidated before a single judge, who will order Edison, Ventura and Casitas to file responses as the litigation progresses.

The Thomas Fire has burned 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, making it the largest officially recorded wildfire in modern California history. It destroyed more than 1,000 structures, including 775 houses. Two deaths are linked to the blaze.

Click here to read more from the Ventura County Star.

Mike Harris is a reporter for the Ventura County Star. Contact him at [email protected] or 805.437.0323.

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