Poodle: Utility Giant Sanctioned $588 Million for Causing Thomas Fire

SoCal Edison Refused to Turn Over Evidence Showing How Fire Started

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission penalized the parent company of Southern California Edison to the tune of $588 million for operational and safety violations that gave rise to the Thomas Fire. | Credit: Chuck Graham (file)

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be: Eighty years ago this Christmas, a singer named Bing Crosby stood in front of a mic and first recorded his first take on “White Christmas,” a haunting piece of melancholia that riffed ever-so-secularly on the origin story of all Christianity. Not coincidentally, this song — brimming over with unquenchable wistfulness and longing — happened to be composed by a Jewish immigrant from Russia named Irving Berlin.

At the time, Berlin commented that “White Christmas” was not just the best song he ever wrote, but the best song ever written. If anything, history would later prove, Berlin didn’t know the half of it. His song would go on to sell 100 million copies. 

I mention all this because four years ago, all of us here in Santa Barbara were celebrating a very gray Christmas as the ashes from 440 square miles of trees and homes fluttered magically, beautifully, and oh-so-ominously down to earth, courtesy of a conflagration dubbed the Thomas Fire. We’re told we’re doomed to repeat history if we don’t remember it, but some things — almost everything, I’d say — I need to forget. If you can’t have peace, maybe a little quiet will do.

And I mention the Thomas Fire not merely to be the proverbial skunk at the garden party. Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission penalized the parent company of Southern California Edison — which provides juice to the South Coast — to the tune of $588 million for operational and safety violations that gave rise to the Thomas Fire. To be precise, this penalty covered four other fires that all just happened to blow up at about the same time. The Thomas Fire, however, was the biggest of all of them, leading to more deaths — 25 when you include the deadly 1/9 Debris Flow for which it paved the way — and more destruction — 281,000 acres and more than 1,000 homes. 

The big news about this penalty is that the CPUC is not letting SoCal Edison pass the costs on to its ratepayers. Instead, its shareholders are being forced to eat it. That’s because of the egregiousness of Edison’s conduct. Proper clearances had not been maintained between power lines and conductors. Not only did the utility giant fail to take the necessary steps to keep its power lines from slapping into each other, spewing molten shards onto the dry bush below, but while Santa Ana winds were blowing — winds that had been predicted well in advance and pretty much always happen around this time of year. 

The Thomas Fire started in two different locations in Ventura County on December 4, 2017 — the Feast of Saint Barbara, by the way — and then converged. All kabloowie ensued. 


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At its zenith, the Thomas Fire was generating its own weather patterns, qualifying it as a genuine “fire storm” event, not just a “megafire” or an “omni-fire.” It was swallowing up and spitting out a new acre every second. We had 8,500 firefighters with 1,000 fire engines on it. By the time it was over, 100,000 people had evacuated. Air quality conditions were so heinous and unhealthy we all had to wear masks. Remember that? 

What I don’t remember, however, is people refusing to wear masks, showing up at county supervisors meetings, and gumming up the works for 30 minutes as they were gently “escorted” from the chambers. 

At the time, the Thomas Fire was declared the biggest, worst fire in California history. That dubious distinction, however, would hold for only seven months. It now ranks either seventh or eighth. Under the new Climate Change regime, megafires now perform like home-run hitters on a steroid streak. Five of the top 10 biggest fires in state history have occurred in just the past two years. If I remember correctly, 2017 was the hottest, driest year in recorded history. We went 250 straight days without any measurable precipitation.

We’ve had hotter, drier years since. Get used to it. 

Thanks to Joe Manchin III, the senator from West Virginia, the $555 billion in federal funds proposed to bring our collective carbon footprint back to what it was in 2005 just went down the drain. The hope was to keep the planet from getting even hotter. Maybe it would have helped. Manchin both represents and embodies the coal and oil interests who fear their market share will be threatened by the cleaner energy sources Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill hopes to conjure into existence with massive tax credits. 

Get used to it.

What really pissed the CPUC off about Edison was not just the utility giant’s failure to anticipate what had already been predicted and take precautionary steps. Instead, it was Edison’s steadfast refusal to turn over to state investigators pertinent documents about the fire’s origins. State fire investigators wanted notes, texts, photos, and reports provided by Edison workers who first responded to the fire. Edison refused on the grounds that such information was qualified as “work product” for the company’s legal department and, as such, was off limits. 

Only $558 million?

It’s worth noting that “White Christmas” was written poolside in a California desert. Its first stanza was, “The sun is shining / the grass is green / the orange and palm trees sway / there’s never been such a day / in Beverly Hills, L.A.”

Where’s Irving Berlin when you need him the most? 


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