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Southern California Edison and Boeing sued over devastating Woolsey fire

Southern California Edison and Boeing sued over devastating Woolsey fire
The Woolsey fire burns homes in Malibu last November. The blaze became the most destructive in L.A. and Ventura County's modern history. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

A lawsuit filed Tuesday against Boeing and Southern California Edison alleges that the two companies failed to protect the public from the threat that fire posed at the Santa Susana Field Lab, a former rocket testing facility where the devastating Woolsey fire broke out in November.

The suit accuses Boeing and Edison of not properly maintaining power lines and electrical infrastructure, and failing to clear brush on the 2,850-acre site near Simi Valley; in addition, Boeing lacked firefighting personnel at the location, the plaintiffs allege.

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The Woolsey fire ended up becoming the most destructive fire in Los Angeles and Ventura county’s modern history.

Robert. F. Kennedy Jr., co-counsel to Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, one of the five firms representing more than 100 property owners and renters whose buildings and property were damaged or destroyed by the fire, said Edison should have preemptively shut off power to mitigate the fire risk on a dry, windy day.

“It was given permission by the California Public Utilities Commission to shut off the power in dangerous areas like this,” he said. “It was warned by the state that it was dangerous, and it actually warned its customers that it was going to shut off the power, and then it never did it.”

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, appears to be the first involving the Woolsey fire to name Boeing as a defendant. Previous lawsuits filed late last year focused on Edison and alleged that the Woolsey fire started because of the utility’s overhead electrical equipment at the field lab.

Attorneys are seeking compensation for plaintiffs’ damaged property, lost wages and attorney fees.

Edison declined Tuesday to comment on the lawsuit, with the company saying the fire’s cause remains under investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. The company said in a statement that it is “fully cooperating in their investigation.”

Boeing said in a statement that the company has not yet been served with a complaint and that its security and fire personnel acted swiftly when the Woolsey fire started, promptly notifying firefighting authorities of the blaze. Boeing also noted that it is “fully cooperating” with investigations by Cal Fire and the California Public Utilities Commission.

The Woolsey fire started Nov. 8 at the Santa Susana Field Lab on a day meteorologists warned would bring dangerous fire weather, with both extremely dry conditions and Santa Ana winds predicted that day.

The fire began near Edison’s Chatsworth substation after a nearby circuit experienced issues shortly before the Woolsey fire started. The fire burned almost 97,000 acres — about 151 square miles — and destroyed more than 1,500 structures, killing four people.

The lawsuit, which quotes a Times investigation, alleges that firefighters’ efforts to extinguish the blaze were hampered by a lack of water at the field lab.

The lawsuit also calls out Boeing for having “failed to have an adequate fire prevention program or have adequately trained fire suppression personnel in place.”

There is a fire station at the Santa Susana Field Lab, but Boeing declined to provide any additional information about the number of firefighters who work at the facility or the type of equipment they have when previously contacted by The Times.

Boeing has said that its fire and security personnel responded to the Woolsey fire and worked with local first responders on the scene. Officials with each of the three fire departments that initially responded to Woolsey fire — Los Angeles Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department and Ventura County Fire Department — have said they had essentially no interactions with any Boeing firefighting personnel.

Boeing acquired the Santa Susana Field Lab in 1996 when it acquired Rockwell International’s aerospace business. In 2007, Boeing, NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy signed an agreement with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to clean up the site. Three years later, state and federal authorities proposed a settlement agreement to clean up the site by 2017, a job that has yet to be completed.

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Former firefighters who worked at the facility through the 1980s told The Times that the field lab used to have a robust, well-trained firefighting team and about six firefighting apparatus, including two brush rigs, along with at least one ambulance.

Scott Promen, 61, who worked as a Rockwell firefighter through the 1980s, said the Santa Susana fire crew received extensive training, and that occasionally they would staff a nearby Ventura County fire station when firefighters stationed there responded to fires in the area.

Although only a small number of people still work at the Santa Susana Field Lab site, there’s still fire danger, as there are electrical lines and people, the two biggest causes of wildfires in California, Promen said.

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