Three years and three months later, Butte Fire survivors continue to struggle with meeting basic human needs.
As the recovery process began, thousands of fire victims filed lawsuits against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (the utility giant linked to the cause of the fire), seeking, at the very least, an opportunity to rebuild their homes.
Calaveras County Office of Emergency Services Director Michelle Patterson reported that 921 structures were destroyed in the 71,000-acre wildland blaze, including 549 homes, 368 outbuildings and four commercial properties.
Since 2015, 100 permits for replacement houses in the Butte Fire scar have been filed with the Building Department, 61 of which have been finalized, according to a report generated by Chief Building Official Ed Short.
Mona Baroody, president of the Hive, a Butte Fire Recovery Center in Mountain Ranch, estimates that 99 percent of her 125 clients that she is in regular contact with (out of 300 clients) still live in Calaveras County, living in trailers on their properties, homes and apartments they have rented, and in homes they have built or purchased since the fire. Approximately 20 percent of Baroody’s clients have rebuilt on their property.
Of the 4,000 plaintiffs that filed suit against PG&E, 1,500 still have yet to receive their settlements, according to PG&E’s third quarter financial report. This leaves a sizable population of fire victims who are trying to rebuild their lives and find some semblance of normalcy years after the fire swept through Calaveras.
Mokelumne Hill native Barbara “Candy” Zelmer lost her home and thousands of cedar trees on her property in the fire.
Her ex-husband, Bill Zelmer, who is currently dying in hospice care, built the house in 1982.
Uninsured at the time of the fire, Zelmer lived with a friend for a year and a half, and then moved into a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mobile housing unit until September of 2017, the end of the 18-month housing assistance period for fire victims.
Now, Zelmer lives off the grid in a recreational vehicle on her 40-acre property with several other people who lost homes to the fire.
“It’s a very hard time for me, waking up every morning to dead trees,” Zelmer said.
After three years of litigation, Zelmer settled with PG&E in October, but the settlement amounted to less than half of what she asked for, and nowhere near enough to restore her land.
As terms of the settlements from both PG&E and insurance companies, plaintiffs are not allowed to discuss the details; confidentiality agreements keep them from sharing the information with anyone not directly involved.
To compound the situation, Zelmer recently received a violation from the county for “camping illegally” on her own land, and has also been forced to remove the people living on her property to comply with county code.
“I’m helping them by giving them a place to live, and they have agreed to stay drug-free as long as they stay on my land,” Zelmer said. “Now I have to kick them out.”
Zelmer’s grandmother’s china is built into the Butte Fire art memorial in Mountain Ranch called “Pieces.”
“Sometimes I go there and shed a tear or two; It’s something beautiful made out of my life,” Zelmer said.
Zelmer is currently in the process of buying a prefabricated house from Clayton Homes.
“Even though there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I still live in the tunnel,” Zelmer said.
For some residents, it is not a matter of homelessness or survival, but of damaged value and delayed negligence to remedy what has been lost and cannot be recovered without receiving their settlements.
Steve Davis, 60, of San Ramon, is retired and lives on a fixed income. He has owned his property in Mountain Ranch for 41 years. He purchased the parcel a year after high school, and has used it as his vacation escape and second home ever since. His two-bedroom house survived the fire. Davis cites the building materials used to build the house – metal roof and enclosed eaves – as what saved his house. He also spent time clearing defensible space after the fire broke out, and weed-whacked his property, which he attributes to other house-saving measures. He had three windows that cracked from the heat of the fire, and it was so close that the blackout shades in the windows of his house were warped.
Since he cannot afford to replace a tractor until he receives his settlement, he weeds his property, which, he says, is not easy because of his age. Davis lost garages, sheds and a tractor, in addition to other equipment to the fire.
Davis could not afford the high cost of fire insurance for where his house is located, so he has been at the mercy of PG&E to settle with him before he is able to rebuild.
Three years later, and he said he still has not received his settlement money.
“They’re just playing with your lives,” Davis said. The estimated damage to his property, which he said includes 90 percent of the trees, was originally $2.4 million. When he arrived at mediation this summer, PG&E offered $250,000. Davis refused to take the deal, feeling that he had been “low-balled.”
He refused to sign the privacy agreement that he was asked to sign by his lawyer. “I said no, I’m not doing it. People need to know.”
To add to his struggles, Davis was recently fined $100 by the county for a power pole that had burnt in the fire.
Even fire victims who were insured have still yet to fully recover.
“We haven’t seen a dime from anybody, and we’re having a hard time surviving,” said Sheep Ranch resident and winery owner Randy Nathan.
Nathan, 74, lost 10 properties to the blaze.
Despite having shown agents pictures of the burn area, Nationwide, his insurer, denied that the fire damaged any of his properties.
With vines failing to produce in 2016 and 2017, Nathan had to lay off employees and sell a building to keep the business afloat, but now he’s being forced to close.
“I’ve gotten no help from the insurance company that’s been accepting money from me for years,” Nathan said. “They’re running away from their responsibilities.”
A Nationwide spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Still, Nathan is more concerned for his declining health than his finances.
Having developed occupational asthma since the fire, Nathan frequently experiences a shortness of breath and coughs up a “black goo” when he works on the ranch.
“Yeah, I still have a house, but I can’t live there. I have a winery, but I can’t work there – I’ll get sick,” Nathan said.
As far as litigation with PG&E, Nathan refuses to enter into a privacy agreement, arguing that it would be a tactic for the utility to “low-ball” him.
“You can’t talk about (the settlement) at a later date, can’t discuss whether you got enough money. (PG&E) is stringing this out just to get the upper advantage, so they can negotiate a lower number with you. The public never really hears what’s happening – it’s controlled by attorneys putting out that information, not us who have gone through the trauma of being in a fire. It’s wrong,” Nathan said.
Other victims have faced similar woes during the recovery.
Mountain Ranch resident Jim Wingo and his ex-wife had been renting in the county for 10 years, and had finally been able to buy their dream home in the foothills when the Butte Fire ignited.
The fire charred several towering pine trees on his property, and damaged multiple sections of his house.
Currently in litigation with PG&E, Wingo, like others, has been told that his settlement amount will be significantly lower than what he is claiming in tree removal, punitive damages and pain and suffering.
To make matters worse, Wingo’s insurer, Liberty Mutual, has refused to cover several pieces of fire-damaged infrastructure on his property.
“My air conditioner system was five feet from where the trees caught fire. (Liberty Mutual) said, ‘It’s an old unit, we won’t cover that’ after I had an official come out and write a report detailing the damage,’” Wingo said.
The company also refused to cover repairs to Wingo’s roof, claiming that the roof was “warped and sagged” due to inadequate construction, rather than the intense heat of a fire.
The roof design, Wingo asserted, was approved through the county Building Department at the time of construction.
Wingo travels frequently for work building bridges all over the country, and is only home two days a week to navigate the stresses of recovery.
“I”ve been building bridges since I was 18,” Wingo said. “You work to build something so you can retire.”
Wingo, like Nathan and many others, has endured various health issues since the fire.
“I’ve been to the doctor the last four years more than I’ve ever been to a doctor,” Wingo said. “It’s hard enough doing construction, and then you have to come home and deal with all of this.”
For Butte Fire victims receiving their settlements in 2018, the financial aspect may have become a little more convoluted for some victims due to a new tax law that was passed in January of this year.
The law removed miscellaneous itemized deductions on tax returns, which is where attorney’s fees would traditionally go. What this means is that people are no longer able to write off those fees.
The upside to this, according to Deborah Morris, an Arnold-based certified public accountant, is that the exclusion for the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) is higher, so it may actually benefit some individuals.
She recommends reviewing the actual settlement agreement and seeing what categories the monies are being paid out for.
Morris also recommends seeking out a competent tax professional for advice.
PG&E did not respond by press time.