The California Department of Justice will not pursue criminal charges against utility company Southern California Edison for its role in starting the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which killed three people and destroyed more than 1,600 structures, the department said Friday.
An investigative report previously concluded the wildfire was ignited by utility equipment in fierce winds. It charred about 97,000 acres across Los Angeles and Ventura counties and forced the evacuation of nearly 300,000 people.
In 2019, SCE acknowledged its possible role. “Absent additional evidence, SCE believes it is likely that its equipment was associated with the ignition of the Woolsey Fire,” the utility said in a statement.
However, after an investigation that involved the Attorney General’s office, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Ventura County Fire Department, there was “insufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt” that SCE violated the law when its equipment sparked the massive fire, the state DOJ said in a news release.
In order for SCE to be held criminally liable, prosecutors would not only need to prove SCE’s equipment caused the fire, but also that the company was aware that its actions presented a substantial risk of causing a fire, the department said.
Prosecutors would also need to prove the company violated state penal code by ignoring this risk and that doing so was a “gross deviation from what a reasonable utility would have done in the same situation,” it said.
The families of the three victims who were killed in the fire have been notified of the Justice Department’s decision, the release said.
“Acknowledging the tragic loss of life and offering condolences to the families, the California Attorney General’s Office has therefore closed the investigation into this matter,” the Justice Department said.
Utilities have been repeatedly blamed for their equipment sparking some of California’s largest and most destructive wildfires, with SCE’s equipment found to have also ignited the 2017 Thomas Fire that at the time became the largest in state history and later resulted in mudslides that killed 21 people.