California Utility Pays $22 Million to Settle Federal Claims Over 2016 Wildfire

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Southern California Edison and two other companies have paid $22 million to settle U.S. government claims that they caused a 2016 wildfire that burned thousands of acres of national forest, it was announced Friday.

The money covers damage from the Rey Fire as well as the costs of fighting the blaze, which was sparked by a fallen Edison power line, the U.S. Department of Justice announced.

"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 U.S. Attorney Joseph T. McNally said in a statement.

The companies agreed to pay without admitting wrongdoing or fault, according to the DOJ.

The Aug. 18, 2016, fire north of Santa Barbara burned more than 50 square miles (129 square kilometers) of land, much of it in Los Padres National Forest.

The government said the fire began when a tree fell onto Edison power lines and communications lines owned by Frontier Communications. The government sued the two companies along with Utility Tree Service, a tree-trimming company that contracted with Edison, alleging that they knew of the danger and failed to maintain equipment or to take action to prevent it.

The parties later agreed to dismiss the suit and entered into a settlement, which was approved by the DOJ in May, with all of the money being received by this week, according to the department.

California utilities have been blamed for starting some of the state's largest and deadliest wildfires in recent years through neglect of power lines and other equipment. That has prompted huge fines and settlement payments and even criminal charges.

In May, a judge dismissed all charges against Pacific Gas & Electric in connection to a 2020 fatal wildfire sparked by its equipment that destroyed hundreds of homes and killed four people, including an 8-year-old.

The utility also reached a $50 million settlement agreement with the Shasta County District Attorney's Office.

Last year, former PG&E executives and directors agreed to pay $117 million to settle a lawsuit over devastating 2017 and 2018 wildfires sparked by the utility's equipment.