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California

Utility can remove power poles around suspected ignition point for Thomas fire, judge rules

In this Dec. 16, 2017, photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, flames burn near
Flames burn near power lines in Montecito, Calif., in December. (Mike Eliason / Associated Press)
(Mike Eliason / Associated Press)

Southern California Edison’s removal of power poles and repair work in an area near the start of the Thomas fire will be allowed to continue, a Santa Barbara County judge ruled Tuesday.

Tossing out part of a temporary restraining order request filed on behalf of homeowners affected by the blaze and subsequent mudslide in Montecito, Judge Thomas Anderle ruled that the utility’s argument that it is properly preserving the equipment it has removed so far was persuasive.

“Southern California Edison is pleased that the court has now twice recognized that SCE is taking appropriate measures to preserve the materials that were removed from the site in order to restore service to the area. We have taken steps to preserve equipment in case it is later needed for inspection,” the company said in a statement.

More than $1.8 billion in insurance claims have been filed as a result of the Thomas fire. The blaze, which grew to become the largest on state record, burned more than 280,000 acres, killed two people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

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State insurance officials are still calculating total claims from the Montecito debris flow, which killed 21 people and destroyed at least 100 homes.

Last week, attorneys for the affected homeowners sought a restraining order that argued the company was potentially damaging or destroying evidence key to determining the cause of the Thomas fire when it removed power lines, poles and other equipment along Anlauf Canyon Road. The judge put off his decision until Tuesday and in the interim, the utility removed many of the poles that attorney Alexander Robertson and his team sought to leave in place.

The equipment may be key in determining financial liability for the damage, as the fire created the conditions responsible for the Jan. 9 mud and debris flow, Robertson said. The fire left steep mountains and slopes above Montecito bare of vegetation and unable to absorb heavy rainfall.

The poles and equipment were being photographed and stored in a secure location. The judge will decide whether to grant Robertson’s team access to the equipment and, if so, when.

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Southern California Edison will leave in place 15 specific poles the homeowners’ attorneys wanted preserved for inspection.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.


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