Terry McBride has waited almost five years to settle with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. since the 2015 Butte Fire decimated five of her properties in Mountain Ranch. In the coming months, she may get her chance.
McBride is one of about 1,000 claimants that have yet to settle with the utility giant over the fire, which sparked when a tree came into contact with a PG&E power line east of Jackson in September of 2015.
“We’re still living in a camping trailer,” McBride said, adding she knows of many survivors that are still “couch-surfing” and even more that have been unable to rebuild. “We haven’t been able to move forward.”
All settlement discussions came to a halt in January of 2019, when PG&E filed for bankruptcy, citing billions of dollars in wildfire liabilities from starting fires across Northern California.
The company emerged from bankruptcy July 1, and its reorganization plan includes a multi-billion-dollar Fire Victim Trust tasked with paying out survivors of wildfires caused by the utility between 2015 and 2018.
“Compensating these victims fairly and quickly has been our primary goal throughout these proceedings, and I am glad to say that today we funded the Fire Victim Trust for their benefit,” said Interim Chief Executive Officer, PG&E Corporation, Bill Smith in a July 1 press release. “This is an important milestone, but our work is far from over. Our emergence from Chapter 11 marks just the beginning of PG&E’s next era – as a fundamentally improved company and the safe, reliable utility that our customers, communities and California deserve.”
The initial agreement with fire victims included a pool of $13.5 billion for settlements – half in cash and half in PG&E stock.
Per the Fire Victim Trust website, the funding schedule for the trust includes $5.4 billion in cash as of July 1, with an additional $1.35 billion in cash in two installments in 2021 and 2022. Beneficiaries to the trust, including about 70,000 claimants in total, will also own 22.19% of PG&E’s stock under the plan.
The trust owns about 470 million shares of the company, and will sell them when necessary to raise the cash to pay the settlements, likely in early 2021, according to Gerald Singleton of Singleton Law Firm, who represents fire victims across the state, including about 300 cases in Calaveras County.
“The key is that we have the stock, so now it’s a question of what happens with the stock,” Singleton said. “It’s in the interest of fire victims for (the stock) to go up so it’ll be $6.75 billion or more. If it doesn’t go up then it will be substantially less than that.”
The terms of the trust were voted on by fire victims, but McBride voted against it.
“I have yet to talk to a fire survivor that felt it was fair,” McBride said. “People are so emotionally exhausted … They went ahead and voted yes on that settlement agreement because they just wanted to move on with their life.”
The trust, under direction of Trustee John K. Trotter and Claims Administrator Cathy Yanni, will provide an “efficient and equitable process” to review claims and compensate fire victims for property losses and emotional trauma caused by the 2015 Butte Fire, 2017 North Bay Fires and 2018 Camp Fire, according to a statement on the Fire Victim Trust website.
Based on records filed with the bankruptcy court in February, Trotter was set to earn $1,500 per hour, and Yanni was in line to make $1,250 per hour for the work.
Although the trust doesn’t have a policy in place to ensure that Butte Fire victims are at the front of the line for settlements, survivors of the fire are at an advantage because they’ve already completed the documents and information that the trustee needs to finalize the claims, according to Singleton.
Butte Fire survivors “should be resolved at or near the front of the line because they’re ready to go,” Singleton said, adding that victims of more recent fires may not have their documentation completed.
Still, McBride feels that Butte Fire survivors awaiting settlement are “a drop of water being thrown into a swimming pool,” with reference to the tens of thousands of other fire victims seeking compensation. That said, she’s “glad to be moving forward.”
PG&E was not involved in selecting the trustee or administrator and does not have a role in reviewing claims or making payments to fire victims from the trust, according to PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Merlo.
A spokesperson for the trust could not be reached for comment.
The trust will start processing claims July 29, and initial payments should be made to fire victims sometime in October, Singleton said.
Singleton said he expects fire victims to potentially be paid out by the end of 2021.
Fire victims can start uploading claims information now at the Fire Victim Trust website.