Investigation concludes 'line slap' caused Thomas Fire

Mar 13, 2019

Southern California Edison power lines touching each other in strong winds definitely started the Thomas Fire, according to a report released Wednesday by the Ventura County Fire Department.

On December 4, 2017, Santa Ana winds gusting up to an estimated 32 mph caused electric power lines near Santa Paula to cross. This created an electrical arc...

“Between two power poles, emitting molten aluminum particles onto the surrounding dry vegetation,” Ventura County Fire Captain Stan Ziegler said, reading from the report.

Investigators call it a “line slap,” and as the agency points out, it caused a wildfire that burned for 40 days and destroyed over 1,100 homes and businesses. Ziegler said it was the record-breaking winds and a stretch of red flag days that turned the fire into “a perfect storm.”

“If we didn't have those factors, those weather factors, this may have been more of a common fire that we've seen start from power lines in years past, but they were kept to five or ten acres,” Ziegler said.

Instead, the Thomas Fire burned 440 square miles. Two people died as a result of the fire, and at one point, almost 9,000 firefighters and other emergency personnel were battling the blaze that burned wide swaths of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The Thomas Fire also burned the hillsides above Montecito, creating conditions that led to the January 9, 2018 debris flow disaster, killing another 23 people.

The official, 71-page investigation report will be available on the Ventura County Fire Department’s website soon, after personnel information is redacted. Ziegler said the VCFD report doesn’t make any allegations or level blame against SoCal Edison, or get into whether more vegetation or equipment maintenance would have made a difference.

“To say, could it have been prevented? That's really, really hard to say, but I can say that both the fire department and the public utilities—we want to learn from history, and historical fires like this,” Ziegler said. “We have increased our preparation messaging, even more than we were in the past, before these fires took place, and making sure our citizens are very, very well-prepared and knowing what they can do to prepare before a fire happens—and while the fire is going on.”