Maria Fire: SoCal Edison says it re-energized power line shortly before blaze began

SANTA PAULA, Calif. -- Southern California Edison said Friday that it re-energized a 16,000-volt power line minutes before a nearby hilltop exploded into the Maria Fire that threatened thousands of homes.

SCE and other utilities had cut off power this week to hundreds of thousands of Californians to prevent windstorms from knocking down or fouling lines and sparking devastating fires.

As the winds eased in most locations, SCE began restoring power. It was re-energizing a circuit 13 minutes before a fire erupted nearby on a hilltop near Santa Paula, the utility told state regulators.

Erratic winds continued to bedevil firefighting efforts Friday at the Maria Fire, which has burned some 9,000 acres, threatens about 2,300 homes and other buildings, and prompted evacuation orders for nearly 11,000 people.

Eastern Ventura, Camarillo, Somis and Santa Paula were at risk, Ventura County fire officials said.

SCE said it had no information about the actual cause of the fire but will cooperate with investigators.

The utility released a statement to Eyewitness News:

"SCE understands this is a difficult time for the many people who are being impacted by the Maria Fire in Ventura County.

It has been reported, during a period of high winds and low humidity, that the fire began at approximately 6:13 p.m. on Thursday, October 31 on South Mountain, south of Santa Paula.

While the exact origin of the Maria Fire is unknown, SCE can confirm that the reported location of the Maria Fire is within its service territory. SCE is required to submit an incident report to the California Public Utilities Commission if our facilities may be involved in certain types of events.

While we have no information about the cause of the fire, we notified the California Public Utilities Commission on October 31 that, approximately 13 minutes prior to the fire, SCE began to re-energize a 16kV circuit near the area of the reported location of the fire after it had been de-energized pursuant to SCE's Public Safety Power Shutoff protocol.

SCE will cooperate with the appropriate investigative agencies if asked to do so. The company's top priority is the safety of customers, employees and communities, which is why we continue to enhance our wildfire mitigation efforts through grid hardening, situational awareness and enhanced operational practices."

The fire has torn through farm country, damaging or threatening avocado and citrus crops and burning up a chicken coop and other structures. Cows, goats and other farm animals were seen running loose to escape the flames.

Thousands of residents have had to flee the area. Some say they were prepared and know to expect fires where they live.

"We had the big fires in 2002," one resident said. "We survived that. We know we'll survive this one too."

Helicopters and airplanes were dropping water and fire retardant and the western front of the fire was reduced to mostly smoke and embers by Friday evening.

The fire began during what had been expected to be the tail end of a siege of Santa Ana winds that fanned destructively across the region, but a tug-of-war developed between those offshore gusts and the return of some onshore flow from the ocean.

"It has been an uphill battle ever since," Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen told a midday news conference. "We are finding that the winds are starting to change and that presents its own challenges all by itself."

Wind shifts expose new areas of fuel to the fire, bringing "a pretty significant firefight," he said.

The fire burned down the sides of a mountain bordered by agricultural land, the small city of Santa Paula and other communities.

Red Flag warnings for gusts and very low humidity levels had been expected to expire Friday evening but forecasters extended them to 6 p.m. Saturday for valleys and interior mountains of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, citing the withering conditions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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