Southern California Edison, along with two other companies named in a lawsuit filed by the federal government on Aug. 17, has been accused of causing the 2016 Rey Fire, which set over 30,000 acres of Santa Barbara County land ablaze.  

The brush fire soon manifested into a forest fire, engulfing an area with a length equal to the distance from Isla Vista to Montecito. Stephen Manga / Daily Nexus

Listed in the suit is Southern California (SoCal) Edison, an electrical services company; Frontier Communications, a telecommunications company; and Utility Tree Service (UTS), a tree trimming company. 

According to court documents, SoCal Edison entered into a “special use permit” (SUP) agreement with the federal government, agreeing to maintain land owned by the government by trimming branches and removing trees to prevent dangerous tree collapses. 

To carry out the agreement, the court complaint said SoCal Edison paid a tree trimming service, Utility Tree Service, to take care of its green space. UTS specializes in “utility line clearance work” and provides services such as vegetation management and storm and emergency response, according to the company’s website. 

However, according to the court complaint, UTS inspected a faulty tree but allegedly made no effort to clear the hazard. The tree later collapsed on power and communication lines, belonging to SoCal Edison and Frontier Communications respectively, and ignited adjacent vegetation, the court complaint alleged. 

The complaint also claims that Frontier Communications improperly maintained vegetation adjacent to its communication lines. 

The brush fire soon manifested into a forest fire, engulfing an area with a length equal to the distance from Isla Vista to Montecito. 

Among others, alleged damages to the land include “the mitigation, rehabilitation, and reforestation of burned areas; loss of and damage to timber, habitat, wildlife, watershed and earth protection… environmental damage… soil damage and erosion,” according to the court complaint. 

Under the SUP signed by SoCal Edison, the electrical company is mandated to compensate the National Forest Service for any damages incurred on the land, the court complaint alleged. After almost a month, the fire was extinguished but resulted in “suppression costs and rehabilitation costs in excess of $26 million,” the court complaint read. 

As of Aug. 17, the day the court complaint was filed, SoCal Edison allegedly had not paid “any part of the sum demanded by the United States” — an amount which was not disclosed in the document. 

SoCal Edison, Frontier Communications and UTS did not respond to requests for comment. 

In November 2018, SoCal Edison admitted to being one of the sources of the Thomas Fire, which swept through Ventura and Santa Barbara County between December 2017 and January 2018 and ultimately burned over 281,893 acres of land. One person was killed as a result of the Thomas Fire, and over 20 people were killed in the subsequent Montecito mudslides.

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