Three families who suffered significant property damage in the Fairview fire near Hemet have sued Southern California Edison, asserting that the public utility was responsible for the ignition earlier this month of the deadly 28,307-acre blaze because it failed to maintain its electrical lines.
The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of money for repairs, lost wages, mental anguish and attorney’s fees.
“Their equipment is too old, they deferred the replacement of their aging infrastructure, and this is the result,” Alexander “Trey” Robertson IV, the attorney who filed the lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Wednesday, Sept. 21, said in an interview.
Edison filed a report with the California Public Utilities Commission of “circuit activity” on its lines that happened at 3:40 p.m. on Sept. 5 at Fairview and Bautista roads east of Hemet. That is the time and location that Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department said the fire started.
Edison spokesperson Gabriela Ornelas this week continued to refuse to define circuit activity and instead referred a reporter to a two-week-old statement about the fire that said safety is Edison’s top priority and offered condolences to those affected by the fire.
.Ian Compton, 40, and daughter Mikayla Porter, 27, died trying to evacuate their Avery Canyon Road home. Compton’s wife, Tina, was critically burned. Some 21 structures were destroyed.
“Circuit activity is code for something came into contact with their power lines,” Robertson said.
Edison’s computer records, he said, will show whether two lines collided or something on a pole broke off and touched a line. The result is an arcing line that sent sparks into the brush. Robertson said in the lawsuit that he believes Edison did not properly clear the area around the lines, which resulted in the brush catching fire.
“The right weather conditions and you are off to the races,” Robertson said in the interview.
Cal Fire said this week that the cause of the fire remains under investigation. The agency would not discuss the role the power lines might have played.
Edison is required to submit a full report to the CPUC within 20 days of the fire.
The fire devastated the three families he is representing. Robertson met with them Thursday at their properties on Gibbel Road. One of them was not insured and the others had insurance that only covered their main homes and didn’t provide money for alternate living arrangements.
“Through no fault of their own, they’ve just been completely wiped out,” he said.
Hand crews hike out of a burning canyon as the Fairview fire approaches homes near the corner of Citrus View Dr. and Fairview Ave. near Hemet on Wednesday night, Sept. 7, 2022. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Guillermo Figueroa and his family own horse stables and operated a landscaping business. They had 18 horses at the time of the fire. Three of their valuable quarter horses, 18 puppies, five dogs and 80 chickens perished. Much of their income came from boarding, breeding and selling horses, Robertson said. All the landscaping equipment was destroyed.
Ignacio Hernandez’s family is living in their car because they cannot afford a hotel room, Robertson said. The fire burned their garage and an electrical panel, and Edison won’t reconnect the electricity to the home until a contractor can replace the panel and wiring — a job that the Hernandezes can’t afford to pay for. The county yellow-tagged their home, allowing the family only brief trips inside.
Jorge Agiss evacuated his family from their ranch, and then he helped two neighbors evacuate before returning to save his home from burning. He finally fled when he lost water pressure and drove through flames on both sides of Gibbel, Robertson said. The rest of the ranch was lost.
“He thought he was going to die,” the attorney said.
Edison is also facing a lawsuit over the Coast fire, which destroyed 20 homes in Laguna Niguel in May.
“This is not going to be the last utility-caused wildfire this year in Southern California,” Robertson predicted. “All the conditions are ripe. We didn’t get really any rainfall in the last storm. The fuel moisture levels are below critical and all it takes is one spark.”
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