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Wind-toppled tree likely sparked Cornell fire in Ventura County as tens of thousands lose power

A huge tree lies across a dirt road, its roots exposed.
Firefighters stopped the forward progress of the Cornell fire after about five hours Monday. The blaze started shortly before noon in a river bottom near Santa Paula Airport and burned 174 acres.
(Ventura County Fire Department)

A large tree that toppled onto a power line Monday during gusty Santa Ana winds has been revealed as the likely ignition point of a brush fire in Ventura County.

Dubbed the Cornell fire, the blaze began shortly before noon in a river bottom near Santa Paula Airport. It burned through 174 acres before fire crews halted its progress about five hours later, officials said.

The tree fell during dangerous fire weather conditions and red flag warnings indicating dry, gusty conditions across much of Southern California.

The Ventura County Fire Department shared an image of the downed tree, which had been upended at its roots, in a post on Twitter, where they cited it as the source of the fire.

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It’s precisely the kind of incident Southern California Edison was attempting to avoid with public safety power shutoffs, preemptive power cuts intended to prevent electrical equipment from sparking a blaze.

Edison spokesman Paul Griffo said Tuesday the company submitted an electric safety report to the California Public Utilities Commission about the Cornell fire, as required when the utility’s equipment is potentially involved in an incident.

“Preliminary information indicates that a tree fell over during a period of high winds onto SCE’s low-voltage wires in the area of the reported fire,” Griffo said.

Electric utilities are under increasing pressure to shut down power lines during dangerous weather conditions to stop fires from sparking.

The report is intended to flag the regulatory agency so it can conduct its own investigation, Griffo said, and is not a concession that Edison equipment caused the fire or is at fault.

“Our thoughts are with all those who have been affected by wildfires this year,” Griffo said. “Our top priority is the safety of customers, employees and communities, which is why we continue to enhance our wildfire mitigation efforts through grid hardening, situational awareness and enhanced operational practices.”

Residents in areas where the power had been shut off were incensed by the outages, though.

“People are suffering in my community,” said East Simi Valley resident Stephan Reese, who has been without power since 8 a.m. Monday.

Reese said power outages were endangering medical patients who relied on oxygen, knocking out internet access for students during finals week and forcing residents out of their houses when they’re supposed to be sheltering at home.

“I can’t heat the house,” he said. “We have no hot water, and we can’t leave.”

In a video shared on Facebook, Reese filmed several drivers speeding through a busy intersection where traffic lights were out because of the power outage. He even captures one crash on camera.

“How long until this is a fatality, Edison?” he asked in the video. “How long are you going to let this go on before people get killed?”

Simi Valley resident Missy Bierend said she lost power around 10:30 a.m. Monday and was still in the dark Tuesday morning.

She’s experienced one other outage this year, she said, but knows several people who have had more — including those who were without power for more than 24 hours on Thanksgiving.

“So many people, myself included, are working from home, and we rely on our power and our internet to make money,” she said. “How do they expect us to pay them for a service they aren’t consistently providing, when we’re losing wages and all of our refrigerated food because of their actions?”

The groceries she bought over the weekend have already spoiled, she said.

Both Bierend and Reese pointed to Edison’s aging infrastructure and called the power shutoffs a stopgap solution in lieu of actual improvements and repairs.

“This is so disruptive to so many lives,” Bierend said.

More than 59,000 Southern Californians remain without power Tuesday morning, according to Edison, as damaging winds continue to threaten a parched landscape. An additional 147,000 customers across eight counties are under consideration for a shutoff as well.

Griffo said power would resume once the winds died down and crews could visually confirm it was safe to reenergize the lines. Residents negatively affected by the shutoffs can file a claim on the company’s website, he said.

“We make every effort,” he said, “to be as precise as we can in making the decision of what circuits to turn off so that we can make the length and the number of shutoffs as minimal as possible.”

The company failed to notify tens of thousands of customers that blackouts were imminent.

But red flag warnings will remain in effect through 10 p.m. Tuesday in most of Southern California, including portions of Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Orange counties, the National Weather Service said, with gusts as high as 70 mph buffeting some mountain and foothill areas.

“While winds are certainly the main weather story today, people may talk more about the temperatures,” the weather service said in its Tuesday forecast. “Almost all coast and valley locations will have highs in the 80s, and there will likely be one or two 90-degree readings.”

Most coast and valley temperatures will be 15 to 20 degrees above normal, officials said, contributing to bone-dry vegetation that can act as fuel for hungry flames.

In Orange County, firefighters turned a corner on the wind-whipped Bond fire, which has burned through 6,686 acres since igniting nearly a week ago.

As of Tuesday morning, it was 75% contained, according to Capt. Greg Barta of the Orange County Fire Authority.

Barta said the fire would be “wind-tested” Tuesday.

“There’s hot spots that could flare up and cause the fire to expand,” he said. “That’s why we still have quite a few crews on scene in position and still actively battling it, but we’ve definitely made a turn in the right direction.”


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