Three major companies have paid the United States $22 million to resolve claims linked to the 2016 Rey Fire. The fire burned more than 32,000 acres in northern Santa Barbara County — including 19,000 acres of land in Los Padres National Forest — after igniting on August 18, 2016, near the White Rock picnic area.

According to the Justice Department, the fire started when a tree fell onto power and communication lines owned, respectively, by Southern California Edison (SCE) and Frontier Communications. The multimillion-dollar settlement was announced on Friday.

In 2019, the United States filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Forest Service against SCE and Frontier — as well as tree-trimming company Utility Tree Services (UTS), which was SCE’s vegetation management contractor — to recover costs for the extensive damages that the Rey Fire caused.

The United States alleged that “the impact of the tree on Frontier’s and SCE’s lines caused a malfunction of SCE’s power equipment farther down the power lines and caused an energized power line to fall to the ground. The energized power line ignited adjacent dry vegetation.”

Court documents state that SCE and UTS were informed of the potential danger of the tree in question, alleging that the entities were aware of the risk of the tree falling on the powerlines below it but failed to take any action to prevent it from falling. The 2019 complaint also said that Frontier failed to maintain proper vegetation clearance around and below its communication lines and equipment and did not take precautions to avoid starting a fire.

Although no structures or homes were burned, more than 300 people were evacuated from campsites and residences. It took 1,260 firefighters, 28 crews, 48 engines, 11 aircraft, two helicopters, and numerous bulldozers to fight the fire over the 28 days it burned. The costs of suppression and rehabilitation associated with the fire amounted to more than $26 million.

“This settlement will compensate the public for the expense of fighting the Rey Fire and restoring these federal lands that are enjoyed by all Americans,” First Assistant United States Attorney Joseph T. McNally said. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office will continue to aggressively pursue recovery against those who cause damages to our precious national resources.”

SCE, UTS, and Frontier agreed to pay the settlement without admitting wrongdoing or fault.

This case was handled by Assistant United States Attorneys Matthew Barragan and Margaret Chen of the Complex and Defensive Litigation Section.

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