No Criminal Charges Filed Against SCE for Role in Woolsey Fire

The view where a home once stood in the Trancas Highlands neighborhood of Malibu.

The California Department of Justice (CADOJ) announced on Friday, Aug. 13, there would be no criminal charges filed against Southern California Edison (SCE) for its role in the devastating 2018 Woolsey Fire.

“The California Attorney General’s Office and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in conjunction with the Ventura County Fire Department, conducted a thorough investigation into the origin and cause of this destructive wildfire,” a press release from the California Department of Justice stated. “Based on that investigation, CADOJ has determined that there is insufficient evidence to support a criminal prosecution. Officials from CADOJ have informed the families of the three individuals who perished in the fire of this decision.”

The announcement comes nearly two years after the utility reached a $360 million settlement with 23 entities for its role in the 2017 Thomas and 2018 Woolsey fires as well as the 2018 Montecito Debris Flow and the Koenigstein fire. The City of Malibu received $13.7 million from that settlement pertaining to damages caused by the fire, as well as other costs incurred (such as additional staff time).

The fire, which began at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Chatsworth, burned to the ocean through parts of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties beginning on Nov. 8, 2018, eventually burning 96,949 acres of land—including several Malibu neighborhoods—destroying 1,643 structures, killing three people and massively disrupting the lives of every Malibu resident due to a prolonged evacuation order.

The CADOJ’s findings confirmed that the fire began due to SCE equipment: “Evidence revealed that high winds caused a loose guy wire near Southern California Edison’s equipment to contact energized conductors on a lightweight steel pool, which resulted in electrical arcing that caused the first ignition. (A guy wire is a non-energized, tensioned cable used to stabilize utility poles and electrical equipment.) Southern California Edison’s poor vegetation control near its communication conductor lines also contributed to a second ignition point when those lines became energized by the first arcing event.”

However, according to the department’s information, there was “insufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Southern California Edison violated Section 452 of the Penal Code by unlawfully causing a fire or committed any other felony violation of California law.” According to the CADOJ, that statute would “require prosecutors to not only prove that Southern California Edison’s equipment caused the fire, but also that the company was aware that its actions presented a substantial and unjustifiable risk of causing a fire, that it ignored this risk, and that doing so was a gross deviation from what a reasonable utility would have done in the same situation.”