PG&E offers emergency relief for Butte Fire victims

Residents of homes destroyed in the Butte Fire may be eligible for payments from Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

A judge last week ruled Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was liable for all property damages caused by the Butte Fire in 2015.

“The court further finds, based upon admissible evidentiary record, the Butte Fire was caused by a public improvement as deliberately designed and constructed by PG&E,” a ruling authored in Sacramento by Judge Allen Sumner said June 22.

It means PG&E will have to pay all damages to real property, like land, or personal property, such as vehicles, proven in court. In order to receive compensation for destroyed property, fire victims have to prove that they sustained damages and the amounts of the losses.

The ruling will likely provide relief to many in a jurisdiction that lost over $57 million in assessed property values in connection to the fire that sparked when a tree came in contact with a power line in Amador County in September of 2015.

The amount was based off individual surveys of more than 2,500 parcels impacted by the fire in some way, Calaveras County Assessor Leslie Davis said. Approximately 2,100 properties were factored into the total.

“A number were not factored in because the damages were less than $10,000,” she said. “Or they were owned by public agencies or were on public property.”

The county’s hit to property taxes lost to the fire was around $480,000. The number was derived from a formula that essentially split larger pieces of the pie with a number of other districts and special municipalities.

Davis said the loss in assessed value, a number made up by the cost of the property at the time of purchase, made up 1 percent of the total assessed value in Calaveras County for 2015.

The losses will be compensated, but outside of the courtroom, Davis said. An Assembly bill coauthored by Assemblyman Frank Bigelow and Sen. Tom Berryhill authorized reimbursement from the state’s Special Fund for Economic Uncertainties to address the tax funds lost from the fire.

Though the county may receive assistance in recuperating losses in property taxes from the state, Calaveras could seek financial retribution from PG&E to compensate for costs related to disaster recovery. Davis said the county could seek reparations to cover the 6.25 percent of recovery costs not paid for by the federal and state agencies involved.

Calaveras County Counsel Megan Stedfeld said Calaveras has not formally filed a suit against the utility. The parties are currently in prelitigation settlement discussions. She declined to disclose discussions pertaining to damage assessments, citing a confidentiality agreement.

“When and if a settlement is reached, we would certainly disclose the terms of any such agreement at that time,” she said via email.

Cases filed by fire victims against PG&E appear headed for trial, said Gerald Singleton of the San Diego-based Singleton Law Firm last week. He said 11 of the approximately 1,000 cases filed against PG&E are scheduled for August and October.

“The trials will last up to six weeks,” said Singleton.

A number of cases have settled for undisclosed amounts.

Through the first quarter of 2017, PG&E estimated the company could incur a loss of up to $750 million in damages related to the Butte Fire. The amount was made up of funds the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said it would pursue in fire-suppression costs and fines imposed by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Yet to be determined in the proceedings is whether PG&E will be held responsible for damages like personal injuries, emotional distress or wrongful death. Singleton said victims would have to prove in court whether PG&E was negligent in maintaining the tree that contacted the power line that sparked the fire.

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