Paul Brutledge has never had $5,000 to call his own, let alone $50,000.
Hidden in the upper reaches of Mountain Ranch, Brutledge, 62, had taken pride in living a modest life with a modest list of expenses in his modest, one-bedroom cabin.
The cabin was a gift from his mother, a longtime Calaveras County resident, who received it from her father, just 15 years before her death. He considered the cabin a family heirloom.
But in September 2015, that all changed.
On Sept. 9, 2015, flames began to ravage Calaveras County. For close to two weeks, a wall of fire burned through nearly 71,000 acres, taking with it two lives and 1,000 structures, 500 of which were in the Mountain Ranch area.
“There wasn’t a thing I could have done to save it,” said Brutledge. “Sometimes, when I’m down on myself, I wonder if I could have done something more, but that’s just silly.”
“I’d be just another part of the ash pile.”
The Butte Fire, as it would come to be known, was sparked after a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power line came in contact with a tree near Butte Mountain Road in Amador County, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Since the cause of the fire was determined, thousands of claims have been filed against the utility company. In the meantime, the survivors, some of whom have lost slivers of their livelihood and others who lost it all, have fought to rebuild their lives and their homes.
Brutledge is just one of the hundreds of people waiting for the monetary boost from their lawsuits to roll in, jumpstart their lives and help fund their rebuilding process.
“We’ve been holding in there,” said Brutledge. “We have good friends that looked out for us after the fire, but we’d much rather start rebuilding, that’s for sure.”
More money, more problems?
It’s unclear how much PG&E will be on the hook for, but if the current trend continues, the Butte Fire victims of Calaveras and Amador counties are looking at a windfall.
In November, almost 125 of the 1,856 individuals suing PG&E were awarded their share of $350 million from the utility company. That number is only expected to rise as more cases reach settlement and it’s decided whether punitive damages are levied against PG&E.
Based on lawsuits already filed, claims anticipated and past history of similar cases in California, a staggering $1 billion payout is expected for victims of the fire. If divided equally among Calaveras County’s 45,000 residents, it would be more than $22,000 per person.
Every person won’t receive a payout, as everyone wasn’t affected by the fire, but for the people who will receive settlements, the sudden money will be life changing.
That’s what Mona Baroody, from the Hive, and Susan Galvan, of the Mountain Ranch Community Conversation Committee, feared when the estimated settlement numbers started to roll in.
“We wanted to give people a place to have their questions answered,” said Baroody. “It isn’t as simple as just getting a bunch of money and spending it. People need a plan.”
According to a study by Ohio State University, a third of people who receive sudden windfalls of money were left with negative savings account balances within two years.
The Hive partnered with the Mountain Ranch Community Conversation Committee to offer free “Sudden Money” workshops for the people of the burn area to ensure that as many people as possible don’t fall into that statistic.
Baroody herself has close to 300 clients who were affected in some way by the Butte Fire. She estimated that 90 percent of those people lost their homes and are looking to receive settlements.
Justin Wilson of Hanson McClain, a Sacramento-based financial adviser, stood in front of a room of close to 35 gray-haired men and women in the humid Mountain Ranch Town hall to offer general tips on how to handle the oncoming cash.
The average age of residents of the Mountain Ranch area tend to fall on the higher side of the 50s, which means that a large majority of the people who survived the fire were approaching retirement age or are already in the middle of retirement.
Wilson made it clear that as money begins to come in, a healthy understanding of what each individual needs for retirement must be taken into account. What that number is will be different for each retiree, and they need to know what their magic number will be.
He did, however, say that everyone’s “magic number” will be different depending on how different their retirement dreams and working life incomes are.
“I have clients with $2 million and clients with $50,000,” said Wilson. “Let me tell you, the clients with $50,000 are much happier.”
Baroody said that she often talks to people in the community who are expecting payouts who have no real retirement plans. The Butte Fire only highlighted that issue for Baroody.
“A lot of them haven’t gotten their settlements yet,” said Baroody. “A lot of people know they are getting a settlement, but when you ask them how you know how much you need, they don’t know. They just have a feel-good number. I don’t want people to settle for less than what they need if they don’t have to. I want them to be self-advocating.”
Brutledge was one of those who had to advocate for himself.
At 62, the former well-digger said that the thought of retirement was a dream for him, but that the Butte Fire revealed just how important planning for the future is.
“I’ve been without for the last two years,” Brutledge said. “I don’t want to go back to that.”
Wolves in sheep’s clothing
It’s safe to say that everyone who is set to receive a large-scale payout from PG&E doesn’t have the strongest understanding of the confusing world of finance, and there are people out there banking on it.
Unscrupulous types looking to take advantage of an unsuspecting public are fairly common when communities begin to see a cascade of money, Galvan said.
“People need to be knowledgeable of that,” Galvan said. “You have a lot of people who are already looking at Mountain Ranch and Calaveras County.”
Contractors looking for a quick buck, financial advisers promising to improve investments and opportunity-seeking family members can take what was a financial blessing and turn it into a headache if proper protections aren’t taken.
Wilson suggested that recipients of settlements consider an umbrella insurance policy, which can help protect funds and investments from potential litigation. The inexpensive policy can protect PG&E payouts from a dirty contractor who scams a homeowner into a lawsuit.
“Have as large as an umbrella policy as you have assets to lose,” he said. “The dollars you’re going to receive from PG&E, they can go after that in a heartbeat.”
Wilson suggested that people who are approached by financial brokers check their backgrounds through the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s (FINRA) online background checker.
FINRA is a not-for-profit organization authorized by the U.S Congress to act as a watchdog for the broker-dealer industry.
“A lot of people can come off as really great people, but you do a FINRA check and find out that someone has been sued about 15 times,” Wilson said.
Galvan said that she has received calls from people who wanted to throw a similar meet and greet in the area, but following background checks, their offers were quickly dismissed. She estimated that the meetings were planned to get people in Mountain Ranch to sign funds over to scammers.
“These folks are out there,” she said. “If someone wants to work with you and your money, please look them up.”
Look toward the future
John Land of Mountain Ranch stood on top of the cabin that he shares with his wife, Lois Land, as the Butte Fire swept through Mountain Ranch with a water hose in hand and the sounds of pine trees exploding in the distance.
“Those pine trees, when they burned, they exploded like bombs,” he said. “We thought it was propane tanks going off.”
“I was standing on the roof like ‘In the name of Jesus, I forbid you,’” said Land with his arms raised high in the air. “The fire looked like a cyclone or a tidal wave.”
The fire leapt over the smaller cabin on the property, but took the family’s motorhome and storage containers with it.
But like the people of Mountain Ranch, the Lands are resourceful.
Since then, Land has taken that cabin and expanded it into a habitable dwelling. He’s added a few bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen, and fixed the sewage and water systems required by the county. Land said that he’s starting to see others in the community inch closer to a sort of normalcy.
His neighbor is also going through the long process of rebuilding. John Land said that his neighbor’s property looked closer to the atomic bomb-scarred landscape of Nagasaki, Japan, than the lush and green Mountain Ranch that he remembered.
Another neighbor has already placed a new home on their property, but the meadowlands that once surrounded the property have been replaced with acres of black ash, a reminder of the long path to recovery for the Mountain Ranch region.
“They have 10- to 15-acres of nothing but black stumps,” Land said. “A lot of people are rebuilding, but a lot of people have left.”
Either way, the influx of sudden money can be liberating.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, close to half of a community will relocate after being hit by a large-scale natural disaster. Some will leave because it’s too painful to stick around; others will take their money and move to another area, free of the handcuffs that bind people to communities.
Baroody said that restoring Mountain Ranch to its prefire appeal is important for the Hive and the committee. It’s important that the people who were scarred by the blaze have a plan to rebuild, or Mountain Ranch will suffer. Both Galvan and Baroody don’t want to see that happen.
“If they don’t, this community will die,” Baroody said.
Some people will get payouts well above the amounts that their homes and properties were worth. Baroody said that she sees a huge opportunity for economically depressed people to take the funds and better their lives in ways that they haven’t had the opportunity to experience before. In turn, that will improve Mountain Ranch.
“This money is a huge opportunity for them and I want to see them grow with it,” Baroody said. “I want to see them start the businesses they lost; I want to see them start to grow the business they currently have.”
Baroody and Galvan also want to see people do a few things that they’ve always wanted to do but have never had the money to do.
William Jungeman came to Calaveras County from South Dakota to look after his ailing mother in 2003. He purchased property in the Mountain Ranch region, but unfortunately, like so many others, lost his home in the Butte Fire.
“It wasn’t my dream home or anything, but it was acceptable,” he said.
Always intrigued by the possibility of building homes out of new and interesting designs, Jungeman said that the sudden money he hopes to receive might go toward building his dream home – which happens to be made out of used shipping containers.
“It seems like for some reason or another, I have these crow’s nest fantasies.” said Jungeman.
Jungeman, who’s also dreamt of building a mound-shaped earth home into the side of a hill, said he would place three containers on top of each other with holes cut into the metal to allow for airflow and passage to the other rooms.
“People always tell me that shipping containers will get hot,” said Jungeman. “You know what I tell them? Well, so is a house.”
The money received cannot bring the survivors back to the lives they had prior to the fire, but it will at least be a good start.
For Jungeman, the shipping container-inspired home would at least mark off one section on his checklist.
“At least it’s fireproof,” Jungeman said.
If you survived the Butte Fire and need assistance, contact Baroody at 600-1565. To contact Galvan and the Mountain Ranch Community Conversations Committee, call 728-8208.