Montecito Mudslide

Thomas Fire Cases

This case arises from the Thomas Fire, which is the largest wildfire in California’s history and the deadly mudflows that followed on or about January 8, 2018. According to Cal Fire, the Thomas Fire broke out in the hills above Steckel Park in Santa Paula at approximately 6:26 p.m. on December 4, 2017. The initial ignition of the Thomas fire was caused when a pole-mounted transformer owned and operated by SCE exploded and caught fire on Anlauf Canyon Road above Steckel Park in Santa Paula.

Thomas FireAt approximately 7:00 p.m. on December 4, 2017, another transformer located on a utility pole owned and operated by SCE on Koenigstein Drive, Santa Paula (Upper Ojai) exploded and caught fire, sending a shower of sparks and flames down into the surrounding vegetation. This transformer explosion was witnessed by several area residents. This transformer fire was a second ignition point of the Thomas Fire and was located approximately 5.8 miles from the initial ignition point on Anlauf Canyon Road, Santa Paula.

The Thomas Fire spread quickly, pushed by strong Santa Ana winds and dry vegetation created by years of drought conditions in Southern California and spread from Ventura County into Santa Barbara County and grew to approximately 281,893 acres and ravaged the Los Padres National Forest, mountains and slopes located adjacent to and north of Montecito, burning almost all vegetation from those areas.

The Thomas Fire was caused by SCE’s negligence in (a) failing to maintain its overhead electrical facilities in a safe manner, including but not limited to (1) failing to identify, inspect, repair and/or replace its aging and decayed wooden utility poles and attached transformers; (2) failing to abate and remove trees and vegetation around its utility pole(s) and electrical equipment; (3) failing to identify, inspect, repair and/or replace its utility poles which were overloaded with communications equipment from shared usage by telecommunications and cable TV providers who were joint owners or renters of SCE’s utility poles; and/or (4) failing to shut down the electrical grid in Santa Paula and Ventura to prevent catastrophic wildfires during the Red Flag Warning that preceded the Thomas Fire.

SCE had a duty to properly construct and maintain its electrical infrastructure and ensure that surrounding trees and vegetation were trimmed and kept at a safe distance. SCE violated these duties by knowingly operating aging and improperly maintained infrastructure.  In fact, SCE’s violations had caused wildfires before, and SCE was fined by the California Public Utilities Commission ("CPUC") numerous times before the Thomas Fire began. Had SCE acted responsibly, the Thomas Fire could have been prevented.

The City of Ventura bears responsibility for the loss of water pressure at fire hydrants located in the hillside neighborhoods of Ventura, which prevented firefighters from fighting the fire and saving hundreds of homes.  During the fire, power provided by SCE to pumping stations owned and operated by the City of Ventura was interrupted.  Because the City did not have backup generators to provide emergency power to operate its SCADA control system or pumps, water pressure was lost to the homes and fire hydrants in the hillside neighborhoods on the eastern portion of Ventura. Many of our clients reported losing critical  water pressure during the height of the firestorm, and witnessed the frustration of the firefighters who were trying to protect their homes when they lost water pressure at the fire hydrants and could not save their homes.

The Thomas Fire rendered the Los Padres National Forest, steep mountains and slopes adjacent to and north of Montecito devoid of vegetation and organic surface litter, reducing the amount of water taken up by plants or absorbed into the soils, removed the forest canopy exposing the areas to the erosive power of high-intensity rainfall, and rendered the soils hydrophobic. The fire left these areas susceptible to excessive runoff and erosion in the event of a heavy rainstorm event.