FILLMORE — Charging that Southern California Edison contributed to a massive wildfire near Fillmore and then tampered with evidence, the state attorney general is asking the electric company to repay the $1.8 million it cost to fight the fire.
State prosecutors have filed a lawsuit alleging that the company's negligence allowed a power pole and electrical conductor to sag onto a tree, sparking the April 1996 fire that scorched nearly 11,000 acres.
The suit, filed last week on behalf of the California Department of Forestry, also contends that Edison officials removed key evidence and altered the fire scene to cover up the company's role.
Edison officials, who deny responsibility for the blaze, disputed the allegations.
"We removed no evidence," said Edison spokesman Steven Conroy. "We cooperated with investigators at the scene. The allegations are completely inaccurate and untrue."
Similar allegations of negligence and evidence tampering were leveled at Edison after the October 1996 Calabasas-Malibu wildfire, which authorities contend was caused by power lines igniting tree branches.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office decided last week not to pursue criminal charges against the power company in connection with the Calabasas-Malibu fire.
In the Fillmore blaze, the attorney general filed the civil lawsuit in Santa Barbara Superior Court, seeking reimbursement from Edison of the $1.8 million spent fighting the fire, along with unspecified punitive damages.
The attorney general alleges in the suit that Edison officials made a false entry into the company's business records to disguise the cause of the fire.
Prosecutors contend that Edison officials changed records to make it appear that a power conductor damaged trees the day after the fire and were not a factor in sparking the flames.
But the lawsuit contends that Edison officials acted wrongly no matter which version of events is true. If power company employees did re-energize the conductor the day after the fire, prosecutors say, they created a potentially dangerous situation that put investigators and others at "grave risk."
The lawsuit also alleges that Edison employees took evidence from the scene and destroyed parts of a tree where the fire started.
Edison's handling of the situation amounted to "willful concerted efforts to destroy, dispose of, or alter evidence," the lawsuit alleges.
Ventura County Fire Department investigator Keith Washburn declined to comment on the lawsuit, but last year filed a report that included many of the claims listed in the lawsuit.
In his report, Washburn alleged that Edison workers tried to remove burned equipment from the fire scene and trampled arc marks on the ground from fallen wires.
The Fillmore fire, also known as the Grand fire, is not the first event over which Edison has tangled with government agencies.
Last summer, a Riverside County jury found that Edison was negligent in connection with a 1993 fire that scorched 25,000 acres in Winchester.
The company was ordered to pay $2.5 million in damages, including $1.2 million to the Forestry Department, but is appealing the jury's negligence verdict. The company also paid out-of-court settlements to other plaintiffs in connection with that fire without admitting liability.
In the wake of the Winchester fire, Forestry Department Battalion Chief Dan Nichols said Edison took downed wires that the state had tagged as evidence.
Authorities also accused Edison of impeding the investigation of the 1996 wildfire in Calabasas that scorched 13,000 acres. The allegations led to an unprecedented raid by authorities on Edison's corporate headquarters last September.
Although Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti declined to bring criminal charges against Edison in connection with the Calabasas-Malibu blaze, a report by prosecutors stated that the area around the Edison pole that contributed to the fire was not properly maintained.
The report also said that Edison activity during the investigation prevented the district attorney from determining whether inadequate tree maintenance contributed to the blaze.
Times staff writer Martha Willman contributed to this story.