Utility to pay $360M for major Southern California wildfires

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California Edison has agreed to pay $360 million to local governments to settle lawsuits over deadly wildfires sparked by its equipment during the last two years, including one blamed for a mudslide that killed more than 20 people, the utility and attorneys announced Wednesday.

The sum will reimburse counties, cities and other public agencies for firefighting costs and repairing damage from two of the worst blazes in the region’s history. The figure will not fully repay taxpayer costs, but it will help pay the bills to rebuild roads, other infrastructure and clean up debris, among other things.

“While this is not 100%, it’s not pennies on the dollar,” said attorney John Fiske, who represents local governments. “A lot of these communities ... were hit very hard. In the aftermath of these wildfires, all sorts of public resources and taxpayer resources are lost.”

The Thomas Fire that broke out in dry brush in Ventura County was sparked when the utility’s power lines slapped together in high winds on Dec. 4, 2017. Two people were killed and 440 square miles (1,139 square kilometers) were burned.

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Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara County
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Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara County
CARPINTERIA, CA - DECEMBER 12: A smoke-filled sky filter orange light around surfers as the Thomas Fire continues to grow and threaten communities from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara on December 12, 2017 in Carpinteria, California. The Thomas Fire has spread across 365 miles so far and destroyed about 800 structures since it began on December 5 in Ojai, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
MONTECITO, CA - DECEMBER 12: Firefighters watch flames as the Thomas Fire approaches homes on December 12, 2017 in Montecito, California. The Thomas Fire has spread across 365 miles so far and destroyed about 800 structures since it began on December 5 in Ojai, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
MONTECITO, CA - DECEMBER 12: The glow of approaching flames is seen at the gates of an expensive home as the Thomas Fire continues to grow on December 12, 2017 in Montecito, California. The Thomas Fire has spread across 365 miles so far and destroyed about 800 structures since it began on December 5 in Ojai, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
CARPINTERIA, CA - DECEMBER 12: A smoke-filled sky filters sunlight to orange around shorebirds as the Thomas Fire continues to grow and threaten communities from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara on December 12, 2017 in Carpinteria, California. The Thomas Fire has spread across 365 miles so far and destroyed about 800 structures since it began on December 5 in Ojai, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - The charred remains of vehicles at a home in the Toro Canyon hillsides north of Santa Barbara, California on December 12, 2017. Crews battling wildfires ravaging southern California for a week have managed to slow the spread of the worst of the blazes, officials said Tuesday, as residents were taking stock of the catastrophic damage. The biggest 'Thomas' fire has charred nearly 95,000 hectares (234,000 acres) of land and is only 20 percent contained, according to the state agency Calfire. / AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
MONTECITO, CA - DECEMBER 12: The Thomas Fire approaches a home on December 12, 2017 in Montecito, California. The Thomas Fire has spread across 365 miles so far and destroyed about 800 structures since it began on December 5 in Ojai, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA, THOMAS WILDFIRE - DECEMBER 12, 2017: This is a DigitalGlobe infra-red satellite imagery of the Thomas wildfire east of Santa Barbara, California. The red indicates unburnt vegitation. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
Smoke from the Thomas Fire is seen from Santa Paula, California as it rises over Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, December 12, 2017. The Thomas Fire, the fifth largest in California history, has burned through 236,000 acres and is 25 percent contained, according to Calfire. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
MONTECITO, CA - DECEMBER 12: A whirlwind of embers is seen as the Thomas Fire approaches homes on December 12, 2017 in Montecito, California. The Thomas Fire has spread across 365 miles so far and destroyed about 800 structures since it began on December 5 in Ojai, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Thomas wildfire burns above Bella Vista Drive near Romero Canyon in this social media photo by Santa Barbara County Fire Department in Montecito, California, U.S. December 12, 2017. Courtesy Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Thomas wildfire burns above Bella Vista Drive near Romero Canyon in this social media photo by Santa Barbara County Fire Department in Montecito, California, U.S. December 12, 2017. Courtesy Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A fishing boat departs the harbor as wildfire smoke darkens the sunrise on the Pacific Ocean during the Thomas fire in Santa Barbara, California, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Patrick T Fallon
Santa Barbara County firefighters clean equipment and look at maps before fighting wildfires during the Thomas fire in Carpinteria, California, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Patrick T Fallon
Stearns Wharf stands as wildfire smoke darkens the sunrise during the Thomas fire in Santa Barbara, California, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Patrick T Fallon
People stand on a roof of a home illuminated with Christmas lights to watch wildfire on a hillside burn during the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara county near Carpinteria, California, U.S. December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Patrick T Fallon
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The area that was hit included a mountainside above the seaside city of Montecito, where a deluge a month later on fire-scarred terrain triggered a devastating mudslide that killed at least 21 people. Two people remain missing.

The Woolsey Fire started with the company’s equipment a year ago just outside Los Angeles and quickly spread to the coast, jumping a highway and crossing the Santa Monica Mountains into Malibu. It destroyed more than 1,600 structures — mostly homes — and killed three people.

The settlement does not include private lawsuits for deaths and homes destroyed.

The payout will be split among the counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles and includes the cities of Santa Barbara, Malibu, Calabasas, Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village.

The settlement is the most comprehensive in state history because it involves 23 public entities, Fiske said.

But the overall figure is dwarfed by the $1 billion settlement Pacific Gas & Electric reached with local governments in Northern California for fires its equipment caused in recent years. The damage from those fires, however, was much greater with more than 20,000 homes destroyed.

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