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A California utility agrees to pay $80 million over the 2017 Thomas Fire to resolve federal suit

Utility giant Southern California Edison has agreed to pay $80 million to settle the US Forest Service’s claims relating to the 2017 Thomas Fire, which at the time was the largest wildfire in California’s modern history, federal prosecutors said Monday.

The federal government had sued the company in 2020 on the forest service’s behalf, alleging the utility’s power lines ignited the blaze, which according to state fire officials burned more than 280,000 acres across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, killed two people and destroyed more than 1,000 structures.

The lawsuit sought to recover the forest service’s costs in fighting the fire and for damages it caused to Los Padres National Forest, the US attorney’s office for California’s central district said. In the settlement, which was finalized Friday, the utility has agreed to pay the $80 million without admitting wrongdoing or fault, prosecutors said.

Of the more than 280,000 acres burned, more than 150,000 acres were National Forest System land, federal prosecutors said.

The settlement “provides significant compensation to taxpayers for the extensive costs of fighting the Thomas Fire and for the widespread damage to public lands,” First Assistant US Attorney Joseph McNally said in a release.

The deal “is a reasonable resolution,” and Southern California Edison aims to “protect our communities from the risk of wildfire with grid hardening, situational awareness and enhanced operational practices,” Southern California Edison spokeswoman Diane Castro said in a release to CNN.

The utility said in 2018 that its equipment might have sparked the Thomas Fire.

Though the Thomas Fire at the time was California’s largest wildfire by acres burned since stout recordkeeping began in 1932, it has since dropped to eighth on the list, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Utilities have been involved in other multimillion-dollar settlements and penalty payments related to destructive wildfires in recent years. In 2019, Southern California Edison agreed to pay $360 million to settle claims with cities and counties impacted by three wildfires, including $210 million for costs associated with the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which state fire officials said burned more than 96,000 acres across Ventura and Los Angeles counties, destroyed more than 1,600 structures and killed three people.

The Pacific Gas and Electric utility will pay $45 million in penalties for its role in the 2021 Dixie Fire – currently the second-largest wildfire in California’s history – which started after a tree fell and hit the company’s equipment in 2021, state regulators said in January. PG&E also was fined $125 million for its role in the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County as part of a settlement with the California Public Utilities Commission.

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