Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire
Sloan Ranch after the Thomas Fire (courtesy photo)
Source: Panish Shea & Boyle LLP
Attorneys with Wildfire Victim Advocates have filed a series of lawsuits against Southern California Edison (SCE) on behalf of Ventura County ranchers affected by the Thomas Fire. Plaintiffs include longtime ranchers Aubrey "Bud" Sloan and his wife Kim, who lost more than 50 cattle and thousands of acres of land on their Sloan Ranch, as well as Rich and Bonnie Atmore, who fought flames with garden hoses to save their home as fire claimed their surrounding orchards, cattle and thousands of acres of Rancho Ventura Conservancy Trust land that they steward. The lawsuits were filed in Ventura County Superior Court on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.
The 50-page complaints allege SCE put profits before public safety and knew about the significant risk of wildfires stemming from its unsafe equipment, aging infrastructure and ineffective vegetation management system for many years before the Thomas Fire began. Decades of documented safety violations and SCE's chronic failure to adequately access its equipment and mitigate risks have repeatedly resulted in fines and/or citations against the utility, including over $78 million in fines levied by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) since 2007 for electric and fire-related incidents.
The law firms of Panish Shea & Boyle LLP, Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger, Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy LLP and attorney Robert Boatman of Gallagher & Kennedy seek justice for residents and businesses affected by the Thomas Fire and have joined forces and resources to investigate and prosecute claims for which SCE is responsible. Preliminary reports released by Ventura County estimate more than $170 million in damage has been done to the County's agricultural industry as a result of the Thomas Fire, with avocado groves hit the hardest. Actual losses won't be known for some time but for many ranchers and growers who have spent generations invested in their business, recovery of the land may not occur during their lifetime.
The Thomas Fire claimed lives, burned 281,893 acres, destroyed or damaged more than 1,300 structures, displaced over 100,000 residents and severely damaged the watersheds in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Of the thousands of victims who suffered a catastrophic loss as a result of the Thomas Fire, here are few of their stories:
Richard and Bonnie Atmore: On the evening of December 4, 2017, Rich and Bonnie were at their newly constructed Ventura home at approximately 7 p.m. when sparks and embers from the Thomas Fire ignited the foothills around them. The couple, along with their son and a few employees, scrambled to move equipment, vehicles, animals and hay to places of safety, but the fire was incredibly aggressive. Fueled by dry landscape and intense winds, it quickly became a threat. Armed only with garden hoses, the Atmore's fought for over 10 hours throughout the night to keep a perimeter around their home until the embers and fire subsided near dawn. Due only to their herculean efforts, the Atmore's home and 12 horses were spared. However, the vast expanse of pasture, native vegetation and trees, seeding grasses, animals and wildlife throughout the rest of the 1,360 acres were devastated. Equipment was demolished, miles of fencing destroyed, the barn was virtually melted and at least 10% of the avocado trees were destroyed. Additionally, dozens of cattle in the Atmore's cow-calf operation did not survive, or had to be euthanized by Rich due to severe burns and the lands upon which they graze are now hydroponic, difficult and expensive to reseed.
The surrounding Rancho Ventura Conservancy Trust land that the Atmore's steward has also been devastated with the destruction of hundreds of coast live oak and sycamore trees, many of which had survived decades. Countless wildlife were discovered burned to death throughout the conservancy and the land has been permanently altered, making it difficult for those animals that did survive to find food or shelter. The animals, landscape and trees that were a huge part of the allure of the conservancy for public recreation and Trust fundraising opportunities has been diminished.
To read the Atmore lawsuit in its entirety, click here.
Aubrey "Bud" and Kim Sloan: On the evening of December 4, 2017, Bud received a text message from a friend warning him of a fire burning in Santa Paula so he took his four wheeler “mule” up to the highest ridge on Sloan Ranch and saw the fire heading straight for the property. The couple loaded their horses into the trailer and moved it to an open area clear of brush on their property before returning to their home to attempt to save it. As a 60-100 foot wall of fire encroached on the ranch and they lost power, the Sloans used garden hoses and two large gravity-fed water tanks to fight the flames off their home, but golf ball-sized embers continued to blow through the air, repeatedly igniting their home and clothes, requiring swift action to put it out. Burning trees all around them were exploding and susceptible of falling at any moment onto the house, resulting in Bud and his stepson using chainsaws and axes to cut trees down before they could land on their home. The Sloans fought the fire all day on December 5 and it would be three days before fire rescue personnel made their way to Sloan Ranch. A gazebo on the ranch where the couple married was destroyed by the fire.
At the time the fire began, Sloan Ranch ran a calf-cow operation that had approximately 400 animals including bulls, cows and calves residing and living off the land. When the fire was over, every blade of grass on the ranch was destroyed, as well as hundreds and hundreds of oak trees and tens of thousands of feet of fencing.
A successful cow-calf operation in the beef industry is largely reliant upon a process of selective breeding. Bud has spent four decades developing his herd and the Sloan Ranch reputation. Dozens and dozens of cows and their calves did not survive the fire and the land which they grazed has become hydroponic. It's not clear when the land will be capable of supporting cattle again. The loss of these animals combined with the loss of their primary food source may render the continuation of the Sloan’s decades-old cow-calf operation too costly to continue. They've already been forced to sell a huge group of their first year heifers because they simply cannot afford to support them.
To read the Sloan lawsuit in its entirety, click here.