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US sues Southern California Edison over 2020 California wildfire

Wildfire in California burns through the night north of Los Angeles

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) -The U.S. government on Friday sued Southern California Edison, accusing the Edison International unit of negligence that caused the 2020 Bobcat Fire, which burned close to 180 square miles (466 sq km) in one of the largest wildfires ever in Los Angeles County.

In a complaint filed in Los Angeles federal court, the government said the fire began on Sept. 6, 2020 when a poorly maintained tree contacted power lines, igniting vegetation on a branch that then fell to the ground, spreading the fire.

SCE and Utility Tree Service, a contractor also named as a defendant, knew for "months" before the fire that the tree posed a danger but did nothing to address it, the complaint said.

The government is seeking to recoup more than $121 million, representing property and natural resources damages and costs to fight the fire, and double or triple damages for harm to timber, trees and underwood.

SCE said it would be inappropriate to discuss the case outside of court. "Our thoughts remain with the people who were affected by the Bobcat Fire, who lost homes and vehicles and were evacuated," spokesman Reggie Kumar said.

Utility Tree Service did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Located in and around the San Gabriel Mountains and the Angeles National Forest, about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Los Angeles, the Bobcat Fire and was among the larger fires in California's record-setting 2020 wildfire season.

It burned more than 114,577 acres (46,368 hectares), destroying 171 structures and 178 vehicles and before being contained after about 2-1/2 months.

The government said many campgrounds and more than 100 miles of trails remain closed to the public.

It is common for utilities to be sued over wildfire damage, though many lawsuits are filed privately.

Pacific Gas & Electric filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after being blamed for a series of northern California wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

Hawaiian Electric, meanwhile, now faces multiple lawsuits over last month's Maui wildfires.

The case is U.S. v Southern California Edison Co et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 23-07254.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sandra Maler)