California Utility Will Pay $80M to Settle Claims Its Equipment Sparked Devastating 2017 Wildfire

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Southern California Edison will pay $80 million to settle claims on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service connected to a massive wildfire that destroyed more than a thousand homes and other structures in 2017, federal prosecutors said Monday.

The utility agreed to the settlement on Friday without admitting wrongdoing or fault in connection with the Thomas fire, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement.

Investigations found utility equipment sparked the fire in two canyon locations on Dec. 4, 2017. The Thomas fire, which burned across 439 square miles (1,137 square kilometers) in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, is the seventh largest blaze in California history, according to state fire officials.

The settlement is a "reasonable resolution," said Gabriela Ornelas, a spokesperson for Southern California Edison.

"We continue to protect our communities from the risk of wildfire with grid hardening, situational awareness and enhanced operational practices," Ornelas said Monday.

Federal prosecutors sued the utility in 2020 to recover costs incurred fighting the fire and for the extensive damage caused on public lands within the Los Padres National Forest. The lawsuit alleged Edison power lines and a transformer ignited dry brush during powerful winds.

The agreement "provides significant compensation to taxpayers," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph T. McNally said in a statement.

It's the latest settlement by Edison over the Thomas fire. The utility has also settled claims related to the enormous Woolsey fire in 2018. Edison estimated in 2021 that total expected losses for both blazes would exceed $4.5 billion.

California has seen increasingly destructive wildfires in recent years, made worse by climate change and drought. Utility equipment has been blamed for sparking some the state's worst fires.

In 2022, former executives and directors of Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to pay $117 million to settle a lawsuit over devastating Northern California wildfires sparked by that utility's equipment in 2017 and 2018.