Los Angeles

Utility Sued Over Wildfire That Led to Deadly Montecito Mudflows

The December Thomas fire left hillsides above Montecito without vegetation, making the area more susceptible to mudflows

A coastal California resident whose partner was killed during devastating mudslides in January has sued a utility, alleging its faulty equipment sparked a huge wildfire that stripped hillsides bare ahead of heavy rains that inundated their home.

Lalo Barajas and Peter Fleurat were swept away when mud and boulders crashed through their house in Montecito. Fleurat's body was found the following day.

"We both were thrown into the water," said Barajas. "I started going that direction, and Peter yelled out at me, 'Grab onto some wood and don't let go.' I looked over my shoulder and he was still there, and that was the last thing he said, but that saved me."

A wrongful-death lawsuit filed Wednesday by Barajas and Fleurat's siblings claims Southern California Edison transformers ignited California's largest-ever wildfire in December. The suit said the blaze could have been prevented and the debris flows wouldn't have happened as a result.

Areas stripped of vegetation by wildfires are more susceptible to slides because rainwater bounces off the soil instead of being absorbed. In the Jan. 9 storm, downpours drenched the seaside community northwest of Los Angeles, triggering mudflows that rampaged through neighborhoods. 

The suit is one of two similar lawsuits filed this week. An Edison spokesman told The Associated Press that it's premature to comment because the fire's cause is still under investigation.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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