Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

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Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire
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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.

Sloan Ranch during the Thomas Fire (courtesy photo)

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.

Bonnie and Rich Atmore (courtesy photo)

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.

Sloane Ranch during the Thomas Fire (courtesy photo)

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.

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CoastWatch Mar 16, 2018 08:46 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

SCE and other Western State Power Companies have been responsible for 100's if not 1000's of wildfires that have turned into conflagrations- costing BILLIONS in firefighting efforts, and loss of life and property... They (Utility Companies) have gotten off, Scott-free forever- A percentage of every bill you pay is SUPPOSED to go to upgrading their infrastructure- Instead it goes to Management bonu$e$, paying linemen $200K + a year for a job that should be null and void as lines should be UNDERGROUND. Not to mention profits going to Shareholders... "The System" needs to change, hopefully, these lawsuit(s) will affect that change. We are still using above ground powerlines circa 1800's , like a Third World Country, it's time to bring the U.S. infrastructure to Western Europe standards at the least.

Channelfog Mar 16, 2018 08:47 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

It is sad that the huge tragedy of this massive fire will escalate into costly legal battles. Power lines are inherently dangerous on many levels as are so many things in our lives such as vehicles. Should we forego electricity and return to candles and oil lamps? Oh yeah, those are fire hazards. I hope these plaintiffs do not receive a single penny in judgment or settlement at the expense of SCE ratepayers.

a-1521216114 Mar 16, 2018 09:01 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

Ugh..... another armchair attorney. You don't understand the simple concept behind negligence, and you probably never will, given your undying hatred of all things "legal." Here it is as simple as it gets: If you do/make something carelessly and without using standard safe practices, and your action/product injures someone as a result, you need to pay to fix their damages. It's super simple. If your neighbor breaks your window while throwing rocks around his yard, don't you think he should have to pay for it? That is all this comes down too, albeit a far more complex level. But the principle is simple - you do something careless, you pay for any damages your actions cause. I can't simplify it any further.

oceandrew Mar 16, 2018 09:06 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

After all the legal brushfires have subsided maybe SCE will have to ask its rural customers to accept the cost of burying their power lines if they live in potentially high wind areas. You can't legitimately expect cheap power if the infrastructure to get it to your property is ridiculously expensive. Anyone who has had trench work done on their single family home knows that burying pipelines or powerlines is NOT cheap and it's not up to the power company to pay for YOUR access to (cheaper, safer, low risk) power.

Ahchooo Mar 16, 2018 09:55 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

I'd like to hear from knowledgeable people exactly what Edison should have done to prevent these fires. Is there anything they could have done, short of burying the lines? I always hear "a transformer blew," but I don't know what that means exactly, and could that be prevented with better design or better maintenance? When they say there was "insufficient vegetation management," what exactly does that mean? How far do they have to clear around their towers? I'd rather pay higher electric bills than pay high costs for fire fighting, *if* the first would prevent the need for the latter.

a-1521219524 Mar 16, 2018 09:58 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

One approach that has been tried a few times is to shut off the grid in an area where high winds are predicted for the duration of the event. As you might imagine, people still complain.

Factotum Mar 16, 2018 09:48 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

Notice many of these aggressive lawyer ad's claim they "will get you what your insurance company owes you" (after they take their own 30% cut). They are not going to get people anything more than what the insurance policy limits already allow and the insured has already paid for upfront.

a-1521223572 Mar 16, 2018 11:06 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

Factotum - suing the insurance company is one thing (and getting what you're owed on your policy). Suing a utility for causing the fire, is much much different and is where you will get the big money.

Factotum Mar 16, 2018 11:25 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

Watch out for the lawyer ads that claim "they will get you what your insurance company owes you". That is easy pickings for their 30% cut. I would call that disingenuous marketing. Caveat Emptor. This statement had nothing to do with suing SCE.

Yeti Mar 16, 2018 10:55 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

it is so sad to think of people losing their homes...BUT, every property/casualty insurance policy has disclaimers about "Acts Of God". A reasonable person, and hopefully this includes members of a Jury, will come to the obvious realization that most systems will collapse during extreme events. The 70mph windstorm in Ventura County when the Thomas Fire started, definitely qualifies as an extreme event AND " An Act of God". Thus, it will be very difficult to legitimately anchor blame during such an event to Edison, since it is not reasonable that they could possible remove all possible risks of a tree branch or other material being swept by the winds and sparking a fire.

Tree branches flying around, downing live power lines, starting fires... OR a spark from a car, or similar event... either way, it is insane to expect a system to withstand such an event.

The last thing we want to accept as a society is the parasitic dirt-bag attorneys going after the deep pockets after events like this. IF anyone is to blame, its the failed forestry policies and the fact that much of these areas that burned, had been suppressed for decades by the local counties and the forest service.. since fires are supposed to be bad. Anyone who lives on the edge of a wilderness area has to expect a major burn while they are a resident in such an area. As such, they had better assume this risk themselves and hopefully buy enough insurance to protect against this risk. It is NOT up to us to pay the cost of their risks for them!

IF these folks win this lawsuit, then it means that All of YOU, will be paying more for electricity as a result to support the huge salaries of these ambulance chasing attorneys that are filing these lawsuits.

a-1521223274 Mar 16, 2018 11:01 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

YETI - the "70mph windstorm in Ventura County" was CAUSED by the fire, not the other way around. Facts help, especially when jurors are reviewing them.

Potif Mar 17, 2018 12:14 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

I thought that there had been warnings about expecting high winds that night, which were made during the day before the fire started that afternoon/evening.

Potif Mar 17, 2018 12:14 AM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

I thought that there had been warnings about expecting high winds that night, which were made during the day before the fire started that afternoon/evening.

Potif Mar 16, 2018 04:08 PM
Ranchers Sue SoCal Edison Following Thomas Fire

Just wondering. Have they said yet what has been found to be the 'official cause' of the fire? On Inciweb, it still states that it is 'under investigation' and 'unknown'. I understand the distinct possibility that it could have been caused by transformers and/or the high power lines... But could the problems that occurred with those items have been caused BY the fire instead of them causing the fire? The winds had been predicted as I remember, and I could be wrong about that. I'm thinking it's sort of like, 'which came first, the chicken or the egg?' I, too, am saddened by all that has happened due to the fire, and especially the lives of people and the animals that have been impacted by the fire, and would also like to know what the actual cause was. I keep looking for an official statement from the people who investigate, and are pretty good at pinpointing the cause of fires in general. Has anyone seen where such a statement has been made as of yet? Inciweb still lists the Thomas Fire as 'active', which, in part, makes me think the investigation is still ongoing.

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