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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

December 11, 2019   |   Ithaca, NY

Opinion

National Recap: Claim deadlines for wildfire victims approach

After a series of devastating wildfires throughout the last several years, Californians may lose the opportunity to receive compensation from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), the company that was to blame.

In May 2019, investigations revealed that electrical lines owned and operated by the gas and electric company caused the Camp Fire of 2018, California’s deadliest wildfire. The fire killed 85 people and destroyed approximately 19,000 homes, businesses and buildings.

Many Californians who lost their homes or possessions in recent wildfires experienced displacement. Six months after the fire, an estimated 1,000 or more families had yet to secure even temporary housing, according to NPR. The wildfires only furthered an already existing housing crisis, forcing many families to live in tent cities or on the streets. 

As a result of the fires caused by its equipment, PG&E amassed billions of dollars in potential liability. In January 2019, it filed for bankruptcy protection. 

The compensation claim filing deadline is a part of PG&E’s bankruptcy case. It provides an opportunity for those affected by the wildfires to receive some sort of compensation for their losses

PG&E has set a target of $8.4 billion for claim payouts. The utility has mailed 6.2 million claim forms to possible victims of approximately two dozen fires, according to The New York Times. It worked to call public attention to these claim forms through websites, social media and television ads. 

The deadline for victims to file claims and receive compensation is Oct. 21. Approximately 30,000 have done so with the help of lawyers, while 1,500 have done so on their own. However, approximately 70,000 victims have yet to file claims at all. 

Residents have neglected to file claims for a number of reasons, including their fears that other survivors might need the money more or that they will not be able to prove the value of all their losses, according to The New York Times.

The company has also faced significant criticism for its bankruptcy proceedings from lawyers and representatives for the families affected. 

Mike Danko, a lawyer in the Bay Area who represents approximately 4,000 wildfire victims, said the deadline for claims was unnecessarily rigid and will prevent a number of families from receiving adequate compensation. 

“They wanted to use the bankruptcy rules to their benefit to limit their liability to victims,” he said.

The utility company’s decision to file for bankruptcy also prompted controversy among California investors and leaders. Many claimed that it was not needed and could hurt millions of ratepayers, those with shares in the company or other companies that do business with it.

PG&E has proposed terms in the bankruptcy filing that would put its overall payments for wildfire-related losses at $20.4 billion. In addition, the company has committed $11 billion to insurers and $1 billion to public agencies.

Brontë Cook can be reached at bcook4@ithaca.edu