Utilities Blamed For Contributing To California's Thomas Fire

Dec 16, 2017
Originally published on December 18, 2017 2:25 am

Dawn and Dana Ceniceros always enjoyed walking visitors through their artsy Ojai, Calif., home in the remote Matilija Canyon. But the couple never expected to tour what was left of it.

Caught in the path of the massive wildfire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties — one of the largest fires in California history — their home is now mostly a pile of rubble and ash. It's one of more than 700 homes destroyed by the blaze that has already consumed more than a quarter of a million acres.

Flames devoured the Ceniceros' home after a wind-fueled flare-up of the Thomas Fire exploded one night along Ojai's northern mountains, devouring many of the homes in the once-lush canyon. Dawn says the couple had evacuated a few hours earlier because of heavy smoke and thought they would be back soon.

"I think back, like the other things I could have taken, and I just didn't believe it was going to happen," she says. "I actually was vacuuming my living room before we evacuated."

And while they took some family heirlooms, they didn't think about the irreplaceable mementos of their 40 years together — like their children's artwork, a 15-year collection of Dawn's oil paintings, love letters and other treasures that date back to their teen years together.

"She had these beautiful little sketchbooks, stories of when we were teenagers and those were in a hope chest, and they're all gone," Dana says.

Ventura County attorney Alex Robertson has spent days on the phone with people in the same position as Dawn and her husband: They've lost everything.

Robertson filed a lawsuit this week on behalf of some residents and business owners against two utility companies and the city of Ventura. The Ceniceros are not part of the suit.

The lawsuit contends, in part, that Southern California Edison crews working above a campground near the town of Santa Paula are the likely cause of the fire.

"They were working up there before the fires started, and then at about 6:20 p.m., one of our clients who worked at the campground observed an orange glow coming from that canyon, and that's where the fire started," Robertson says.

Officials at the electric company declined to comment on the lawsuit but said the utility is cooperating with fire investigators.

The suit also alleges that water hydrants operated by the city of Ventura and the Casitas Municipal Water District didn't work properly.

"Many people are very angry at the water companies because the firemen were just standing there," Robertson says. "You know, they had plenty of firemen and firetrucks on their streets, but they had no water."

The water utility says that its fire hydrants were working and that it's not liable for any of the losses. The city of Ventura did not respond to interview requests.

As they move forward, Dawn and Dana Ceniceros point out that their last name means "from the ashes."

"We're going to sift through this ash, and any little broken piece or whatever I'm going to reclaim it and make something beautiful out of it," Dawn says.

NPR's Isabel Dobrin in Digital News produced this story for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In Southern California, the wildfire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has already consumed more than a quarter million acres. It is one of the largest fires in California history. It has destroyed more than 700 homes. As Stephanie O'Neill reports, two new lawsuits put the blame on public utilities.

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Dawn and Dana Ceniceros always enjoyed walking visitors through their artsy Ojai home in the remote Matilija canyon. But never did they expect to give this kind of tour.

DAWN CENICEROS: This was our bedroom. We had a beautiful carved headboard. I remember saving the money to buy.

That was the kitchen. And that's a 1920s gas stove that we used every day - had a beautiful, yellow enamel finish on it.

O'NEILL: But now most everything inside and around their home is reduced to rubble and ash. It happened after a wind-fueled flare-up of the Thomas Fire exploded one night along Ojai's northern mountains, devouring many of the homes in this once-lush canyon. Dawn says the couple had evacuated a few hours earlier due to heavy smoke and really thought they'd be back soon.

DAWN CENICEROS: I think back - like, other things I could have taken. And I just didn't believe it was going to happen. I actually was vacuuming my living room before we evacuated.

ALEX ROBERTSON: I've spent days on the phone with people whose - you know, they lost everything.

O'NEILL: Alex Robertson is a Ventura County attorney who filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents and business owners. The lawsuit contends in part that Southern California Edison crews working above a campground near the town of Santa Paula are the likely cause of the fire.

ROBERTSON: They were working up there before the fire started. And then at about 6:20 p.m., one of our clients who works at the campground observed an orange glow coming from that canyon. And that's where the fire started.

O'NEILL: Robertson also alleges that water hydrants operated by the city of Ventura and the Casitas Municipal Water District didn't work properly.

ROBERTSON: Many people are very angry at the water companies because the firemen were just standing there. You know, they had plenty of firemen, fire trucks on their streets. But they had no water.

O'NEILL: The water utility says its fire hydrants were working, and that it's not liable for any of the losses. The city of Ventura didn't respond to interview requests. And Southern California Edison says it can't comment on the lawsuit but that the utility is cooperating with fire investigators. Robertson's lawsuit is the second so far filed on behalf of fire victims like Dawn and Dana Ceniceros, whose last name, Dawn points out, means from the ashes.

DAWN CENICEROS: We're going to sift through this ash and any little broken piece or whatever - I'm going to reclaim it and make something beautiful out of it, you know?

O'NEILL: And regardless of how the lawsuit plays out, Dawn and her husband Dana say they plan to rebuild. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Ojai, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.