Southern California Edison (SCE) is a major utility company in California that provides electricity to 15 million people across coastal, central, and southern California. SCE also provides natural gas and freshwater services to Santa Catalina Island. With a service territory of approximately 50,000 square miles, it is one of the largest utility companies in the United States. The utility’s roots can be traced all the way back to 1908, and today it is one of eight investor-owned electric utilities in California that are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).
Like other California utilities, Southern California Edison has caused a number of wildfires and the majority of its wildfire mitigation efforts began after the 2017 Thomas Fire and 2018 Woolsey Fire. A 2023 news release from Edison International, SCE’s holding company, said the utility has reduced the probability of wildfires associated with its equipment by 75-80% since 2018. Southern California Edison is under investigation for the 2022 Fairview Fire and 2020 Silverado Fire, among others.
Climate change is worsening California wildfire risk, creating hotter, drier, and windier conditions that fuel the spread and intensity of wildfires across the state. Some of the worst and most destructive wildfires have occurred just in the last 20 years, including the Thomas Fire, which currently sits in the top 20 for largest, deadliest, and most destructive fires in California, and the Woolsey Fire (most destructive). As a result, California, along with utility companies like Southern California Edison (SCE), face mounting pressure to implement proactive measures to mitigate the impact of wildfires, including investing in fire-resilient infrastructure, enhancing early warning systems, and supporting renewable energy initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat the root causes of climate change.
On one hand, SCE has taken various steps to improve wildfire mitigation and response. This includes enhancing vegetation management around power lines, implementing advanced weather monitoring systems, and upgrading infrastructure to reduce the likelihood of equipment-related fires. The company has also invested in technologies and initiatives to detect and respond to potential fire threats more effectively.
However, despite these efforts, SCE has also been at the center of some of California’s most devastating wildfires. This has led to lawsuits, investigations, and public scrutiny over the adequacy of the company’s preventive measures.
SCE has demonstrated a strong vested interest in renewable energy and sustainability initiatives since the early 2000s. Southern California Edison has engaged in various initiatives, including investing in large-scale solar farms, supporting residential solar installations, signing power purchase agreements with wind energy developers, and exploring energy storage technologies. SCE has also played an active role in promoting electric vehicle adoption by installing charging stations and offering incentives to customers and businesses.
The company offers a Green Rate Program to its customers, in which they can elect to have 50% or 100% of their usage fueled by solar energy. SCE estimated energy costs would be roughly 4 cents lower per kilowatt hour, and the program was so popular that it reached capacity in 2022. The economic viability of renewable energy technologies has become increasingly evident, making investments in renewables financially advantageous for the company. By diversifying its energy portfolio, SCE has ensured a reliable and stable energy supply for its customers while reducing exposure to the price volatility of fossil fuels.
In California, the importance of robust wildfire mitigation strategies and renewable energy adoption cannot be overstated. It is imperative for utility companies, regulatory agencies, and communities to collaborate closely in implementing comprehensive strategies that prioritize public safety.
Fires attributed to SCE equipment from 2016 to present. Not a complete or comprehensive list. Fires may or may not have been related to violations of state law.
In December 2021, SCE reached a significant settlement related to the Thomas, Woolsey, Rye, Meyers, and Liberty fires, agreeing to pay $550 million in fines, penalties, and disallowances. The fires collectively caused nearly $10 billion in damages. As part of the settlement, SCE paid a $110 million penalty to California’s general fund and allocated $65 million towards implementing improved safety measures. Additionally, the agreement disallowed the utility company from passing on $375 million in fire costs to its ratepayers, reflecting the financial burden SCE assumed for its role in the wildfires.
Despite facing these substantial settlement costs and the significant financial impact of the wildfires, SCE has demonstrated financial resilience. Although the company reported a net loss in 2018, it has managed to achieve net incomes in the hundreds of millions and even billions in nine out of the past ten years. This financial stability has allowed SCE to continue operating while investing in safety improvements and meeting its commitments to wildfire mitigation efforts.
Litigation stemming from wildfires can be a complex and lengthy process, often taking several years to resolve fully. While the outcome of ongoing litigation remains uncertain, we continue to monitor how much SCE will be held accountable for and what financial implications it may face.
The Easy Fire ignited on October 30th, 2019, and burned 2,375 acres in Ventura County. The Ventura County Fire Department announced in October 2020 that SCE was to blame for the fire. The fire department determined that the Maria Fire, which ignited on October 31st in Ventura County, was caused by the California Resources Production Corporation. However, the CRPC has contested this, saying the fire sparked when SCE re-energized the grid after a safety shutoff without notice or opportunity to inspect its equipment. The company has filed a lawsuit again SCE over the fire.
On November 15th, 2022, the California Public Utilities Commission fined Southern California Edison $1 million for violating CPUC regulations. General Order 95 and Rule 31.1 require utilities to design and maintain their conductors and insulators safely and adequately. The Easy Fire was caused by an insulator swinging into a steel power pole during a massive wind event. causing a massive spark.
The Woolsey Fire ignited on November 8th, 2018, burned 96,949 acres, and killed 3 civilians in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. An investigative report was released to the public in October 2020 that determined equipment owned and operated by SCE caused the fire. Specifically, a guy wire on a steel pole connected with an energized conductor during strong winds, causing “heated material” to fall on surrounding vegetation. A second fire sparked about a quarter mile away, and the two fires would later merge and become known as the Woolsey Fire.
On November 20th, 2018, McNicholas & McNicholas, Frantz Law Group, and Bridgford, Gleason & Artinian filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents in Ventura and Los Angeles counties affected by the Woolsey Fire. The suit alleges the fire ignited due to poorly maintained electrical equipment.
On February 5th, 2019, five firms, including Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman filed a lawsuit against SCE and Boeing on behalf of over 100 property owners whose buildings and properties were damaged or destroyed by the Woolsey Fire. The lawsuit alleges the two companies failed to protect the public from fire threats and that SCE could’ve but chose not to de-energize its equipment.
A handful of other civil lawsuits have been filed against SCE, including most recently in 2023 Hewitt et al. v. Southern California Edison Co.
In November 2019, SCE agreed to pay $360 million to public agencies affected by the Woolsey Fire, Thomas Fire, and Montecito Mudslide, including Los Angeles County and the city of Malibu. Los Angeles County said it will receive $62 million, while Malibu will receive $13.7 million. Other entities include the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, Consolidated Fire Protection District of Los Angeles County, Ventura County, the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, Ventura County Fire Protection District, city of Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, the Conejo Recreation and Park District, Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency, Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District and the city of Thousand Oaks.
In January 2021, Southern California Edison agreed to pay $2.2 billion to insurance companies that sued over the Woolsey Fire. SCE admitted no wrongdoing or liability in reaching the settlements.
*On September 29th, 2022, Governor Newsom signed bills that made victims’ settlement payments from the Thomas Fire and Woolsey Fire, among others, state tax-free.
The Thomas Fire ignited on December 4th, 2017, burned 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and killed 1 firefighter and 1 civilian. According to a Ventura County Fire Department report released in March 2019, SCE powerlines arced and made contact with each other during high winds, which caused “molten aluminum particles” to fall on vegetation. The Koenigsten Fire sparked approximately one hour later and 3.5 miles northwest and would later merge and be considered part of the Thomas Fire. The fire burned large amounts of vegetation whose roots soaked up a large amount of rainwater and stabilized the soil on hillsides and vulnerable areas. With the vegetation gone, a series of mudflows occurred in January 2018 and killed 23 Montecito residents.
Numerous civil lawsuits were filed in early December on behalf of victims and property owners affected by the Thomas Fire. The suits alleged negligence, including that SCE failed to properly maintain, operate, and design its equipment, as well as improper vegetation management. In March 2018, ranchers, including a couple who lost more than 50 cattle and thousands of acres of land in the Thomas Fire, also filed lawsuits.
In September 2020, SCE announced a $1.16 billion settlement with insurance companies suing over the Thomas Fire and Montecito Mudslide. The company made no admission of wrongdoing or liability as part of the agreement.
As part of a $360 million settlement with public agencies for the Woolsey Fire, Thomas Fire, and Montecito Mudslide, the city of Ventura received $8 million.
*On September 29th, 2022, Governor Newsom signed bills that made victims’ settlement payments from the Thomas Fire and Woolsey Fire, among others, state tax-free.
The Rey Fire ignited on August 19th, 2016, and burned 32,606 acres in Santa Barbara County. The fire sparked when a tree fell onto power and communication lines owned by SCE and Frontier.
Southern California Edison, Utility Tree Service LLC, and Frontier Communications agreed to pay $22 million to the U.S. to resolve claims on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service. The companies agreed to the settlement without admitting wrongdoing or fault.
The investigation into the cause of the Fairview Fire, which ignited on September 5th, 2022, damaged or destroyed 41 structures and killed 2 people, is ongoing.
On September 21st, 2022, multiple families filed a lawsuit against Southern California Edison, accusing the company of failing to de-energize its electrical lines and causing the Fairview Fire. In October 2022, Singleton Schreiber filed a lawsuit against SCE on behalf of individuals who owned property and/or resided in areas affected by the Fairview Fire.
In February 2023, the city of Hemet filed a lawsuit against SCE, alleging the company did not manage its electrical power lines and failed to keep landscape trimmed.
The official cause of the Coastal Fire, which sparked on May 11th, 2022, and burned 200 acres is still under investigation.
One week after the fire erupted, Orange County residents filed a lawsuit against SCE, alleging the company did not implement sufficient vegetation management programs or repair or update its electrical hardware.
The cause of the Silverado Fire, which ignited on October 26th, 2020, and burned 12,466 acres is still under investigation, though Southern California Edison sent a letter to the CPUC, where it said lashing wire may have sparked the fire.
In April 2021, Singleton Schreiber McKenzie & Scott, LLP filed two lawsuits on behalf of hundreds of victims of the Bobcat and Silverado fires. The suits named SCE and T-Mobile USA as defendants in the Silverado suit.
On October 20th, 2022, the state forest department filed a lawsuit against SCE and T-Mobile USA, alleging equipment failures caused the Silverado Fire. The suit accused the companies of negligence and failure to properly design, install, and maintain their equipment. The suit did not specify a monetary damage amount.
On October 2nd, 2023, Orange County filed a lawsuit against SCE and T-Mobile for damages and expenses incurred from the Silverado Fire. The county is asking for “damages that include the reimbursement of staff labor and wages and money for damage to public infrastructure and restoration of land, along with costs for law enforcement, fire suppression efforts and money spent to run emergency operations centers.”
The Creek Fire sparked on December 5th, 2017, and burned 15,619 acres.
In June 2023, the United States filed a federal complaint against SCE, seeking $40 million in damages from the Creek Fire that devastated the Angeles National Forest. The government previously filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, alleging the company failed to clear brush beneath its equipment. It is dismissing that case.
According to reports, documents Edison provided under subpoena in the litigation against LADWP appeared to have changed the government’s thinking.
Since 2020, utility companies regulated by the CPUC have been required to submit a 3-year wildfire mitigation plan supplemented with yearly updates. SCE’s 2023 Wildfire Mitigation Plan shows the company spent a little over $4.6 billion on mitigation efforts from 2020-2022 and plans to spend a little over $5.75 billion over the next three years.
“Climate change, including California’s ongoing drought, has made wildfires a year-round concern. One-quarter of SCE’s service area is now in a high fire risk area, making wildfire mitigation one of our top priorities,” reads SCE’s website. “SCE has invested in improvements and technology to help us prevent wildfires and respond quickly to them when they do happen.”
A commonality for SCE has been its equipment struggling to withstand high winds, and the company has been accused on more than one occasion of not de-energizing its lines during critical weather events (Fairview Fire, Woolsey Fire). California’s utilities have been criticized for Public Safety Power Shutoffs in the past—namely for failing to adequately warn customers—but also for cutting off power for days in rural areas and during heat waves. Utility companies are now generally scrutinized by the public any time they shut off power.
SCE has come a long way since it started taking wildfire mitigation more seriously following the destructive 2017 Thomas and 2018 Woolsey fires. Edison International stated in a March 2023 news release that SCE has reduced its wildfire risk by 75%-80% since 2018. As investigations into at least 3 fires since 2020 are ongoing, time will continue to tell how effective and/or behind schedule these wildfire mitigation efforts are.
SCE adopted a policy to shut off power to customers as a fire prevention tactic in 2018. According to the company’s website, the measure is a last resort, but there was a point when many people, including state regulators, were concerned about the program.
In June 2022, state regulators fined SCE $10 million for violations related to public safety power shutoffs that occurred in 2020. This included a shut-off that left 100,000 households and businesses in Acton without power for up to three days during Thanksgiving.
The CPUC also fined PG&E and SDG&E, citing violations including, “failing to notify all customers of the impending loss of power, not giving enough notice of de-energization, and informing regulators that power was restored before all circuits had been re-energized.”
Southern California Edison says it enhanced its customer notification processes and developed a portfolio of customer care offerings during its 2020-2022 mitigation efforts. It plans to reduce the impacts of PSPS on customers for 2023-2025, particularly for those with access and functional needs, through strategies that will minimize the need for PSPS altogether. This includes targeted grid hardening to reduce impacts on customers who have historically experienced PSPS.
SCE has been using drones since 2019 to inspect power lines in high-risk areas, especially those that are hard to reach on foot. That includes hazardous and remote areas where drones can help spot broken insulators or broken cotter keys and pins. The 2023-2025 Wildfire Mitigation Plan says the company plans to inspect more than 250,000 structures each year with drones and helicopters.
In 2018, SCE installed just 151 covered conductor circuit miles. Over 2023-2025, SCE plans to install more than 2,850 circuit miles of covered conductor over this time period, and by the end of 2025, it should have 75% of overhead conductor in its high-fire risk areas covered. The company also plans to underground about 100 miles of power lines by the end of 2025.
Between 2020-2022, SCE conducted hazard tree assessments on more than 1,325 circuits and performed 21,000 hazard tree mitigations. It said it also cleared brush at the base of more than 502,400 poles. SCE plans to inspect at least 1,020 HFRA circuit miles each year from 2023-2025.
As of the end of 2022, SCE had more than 1,620 weather stations installed across high-risk fire areas. Over the 2023-2025 period, it plans to add 150 weather stations to its network to “provide more granular weather data to inform our situational awareness and forecasting of potentially dangerous winds and elevated fire potential.” The company had over 180 HD cameras installed at the end of 2022 and plans to add more.