Southern California Edison Co. and other utilities have paid a $22 million settlement to the federal government related to the Rey Fire that burned 36,202 acres in the Santa Barbara backcountry in 2016.
The Rey Fire started on Aug. 18, 2016, when a tree branch fell onto power and communication lines owned by SCE and Frontier Communications.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a lawsuit against the utilities in 2019 to recover costs for the firefighting effort and the damage from the blaze.
The lawsuit also named Utility Tree Services LLC, which was Edison’s vegetation management contractor, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“The United States alleged that the impact of the tree on Frontier’s and SCE’s lines caused a malfunction of SCE’s power equipment farther down the power lines, and caused an energized power line to fall to the ground,” said Cieran McEvoy of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in a statement this week.
“The energized power line ignited adjacent dry vegetation.”
The wildfire sparked near the White Rock Day Use Picnic Area along Paradise Road in Los Padres National Forest, and burned about 19,000 acres of forest land.
It took about a month for firefighting crews to get full containment on the blaze, which burned in backcountry wilderness areas, but put out huge plumes of smoke that were seen throughout Santa Barbara County.
SCE, Frontier and Utility Tree Services paid the settlement without admitting wrongdoing of fault, McEvoy said.
“This settlement will compensate the public for the expense of fighting the Rey Fire and restoring these federal lands that are enjoyed by all Americans,” First Assistant United States Attorney Joseph T. McNally said in a statement.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office will continue to aggressively pursue recovery against those who cause damages to our precious national resources.”
SCE has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements for wildfires, including a $28.1 million settlement to Santa Barbara County in 2020 for the Thomas Fire, and a $360 million settlement to local public agencies for the Thomas Fire and Woolsey Fire.
Investigators determined that SCE power lines caused both wildfires.
A 2019 report from CalFire and the Ventura County Fire Department concluded the 281,893-acre Thomas Fire was started by “line slaps,” energized power lines contracting each other during high winds.