North Bay fire survivors rally in support of California wildfire recovery fund

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SACRAMENTO — A Senate panel Monday afternoon approved wildfire prevention and safety legislation proposed by the governor that would help compensate victims of future fires and protect ratepayers from unfair increases to their utility bills.

Sonoma County officials and residents were in Sacramanto earlier Monday to lobby for support of the bill before a Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee hearing on legislation they say would give local 2017 fire victims additional leverage to resolve their claims against PG&E that are part of the utility’s bankruptcy court proceedings.

The bill is part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to bring stability to California’s energy marketplace which has been rocked by wildfires in 2017 and 2018. The influx of fires has financially impaired utilities and sent Pacific Gas and Electric Co. into bankruptcy early this year, because of billions of dollars of claims from infernos the past two years.

The legislation, AB 1054, would create a $10.5 billion wildfire recovery fund paid for by the utilities and ratepayers to pay for damages to victims of future wildfires. Utilities would only be able to tap the money if they meet the state’s fire safety standards.

The bill also includes language that would place additional requirements on PG&E before the company could access the fund. The state’s largest utility would have to exit bankruptcy with a reorganization plan “neutral to ratepayers” and resolve fire victims’ claims from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires by June 30, 2020.

“That’s why I use the word ‘leverage.’ It’s not direct compensation. It puts more leverage on PG&E to get more adequate compensation” from the utility, said Patrick McCallum, a Sacramento lobbyist and co-chair of wildfire victims group Up from the Ashes. McCallum lost his home in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood during the Tubbs fire in October 2017.

He and other local fire survivors who have outstanding claims againt PG&E are competing in bankruptcy proceedings in a San Francisco courtroom with other creditors, including lenders, contractors and those whose homes burned in the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County.

“We are far apart from what PG&E is offering, from what needs to be done to make victims whole,” McCallum said.

PG&E equipment was deemed responsible for causing 17 of 18 of the Northern California wildfires that broke out in October 2017, according to Cal Fire. The exception was the Tubbs fire, which destroyed more than 4,600 homes, mostly in Santa Rosa, but was linked to privately owned and maintained power equipment.

This is a developing story. Please check for updates.

Staff Writer Bill Swindell can be reached at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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