Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Thomas Fire: Utility company charged over blaze

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Image copyright REUTERS Image caption The Thomas Fire was the most destructive in California history

A southern California utility company has been charged with four crimes over the deliberate destruction of power lines to delay battling a wildfire that killed four people, destroyed thousands of homes and damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 other structures.

The so-called Thomas Fire, which erupted on 13 December last year, was the most destructive in California history.

Several families remain homeless as authorities continue to clear burnt out buildings on burned out homes.

See how it unfolded here.

In the criminal case filed on Tuesday, investigators said power lines owned by Southern California Edison Co were negligently operated and maintained by the utility company.

Image copyright: Reuters Image caption A memorial picture on the door of a house in Santa Paula

The cause of the blaze, which destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, remains under investigation by state and federal agencies.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) has said a malfunction of a power line sparked the fire, but it is still examining the cause.

San Diego-based Southern California Edison has strongly denied allegations of criminal wrongdoing.

It claims a Cal Fire investigator determined that the fire started near a power pole after winds shifted.

“The California Public Utilities Commission has reviewed and supported the investigation and decided to take the action recommended by Cal Fire,” said Edison spokesman Paul Klein.

“Once the California PUC issues its ruling, we look forward to resolving the issue quickly.”

In the criminal indictment, investigators argued the power lines were negligently maintained with carelessness “to frustrate” the rapid response of firefighters.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The Thomas Fire began December 13

They also said Edison had a five-year history of failing to maintain the wires and knowingly jeopardised public safety and property in the area.

In a statement posted on its website, Edison said it had supported the investigation and had “not been advised of the details of this investigation at any time”.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Investigators believe the fire was caused by a power line

The Thomas Fire had charred more than 281,000 acres – or 424 sq miles – in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties by the time it was brought under control on 25 December, two days after it was started.

Cal Fire said the fire, which started on the dry Santa Ana winds, was the largest by area that had ever been controlled in the state.

It also consumed 15% of the land in Ventura County – the county from which many of the victims in the fire were from.

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