PG&E agrees to $1 billion in settlements with California towns, counties ravaged by wildfire

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has agreed to pay the town of Paradise, as well as Butte County and other Northern California counties, $1 billion as part of a negotiated civil settlement for a string of wildfires caused by the embattled utility that ravaged the region.

The settlements, announced Tuesday, include PG&E paying $270 million to Paradise and another $252 million to Butte County, where the deadly Camp Fire hit last November.

The settlement deal, part of the utility company’s ongoing bankruptcy process, involved fires caused by PG&E equipment in 2015, 2017 and the Camp Fire in November. PG&E officials on Tuesday issued a statement saying the utility has reached a handful of settlements as part of its financial reorganization plan underway in federal bankruptcy court. The deal must still be approved by the federal bankruptcy judge overseeing PG&E’s finances.

The settlement does not affect the billions of dollars sought in private civil lawsuits filed against the utility by individuals and businesses affected by the wildfires.

“Camp Fire survivors have already been through hell,” state Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, said in a statement Tuesday. “The utility has an obligation not to prolong their suffering.” Gallagher represents Camp Fire-hit Butte County and Yuba County, struck by 2017’s deadly Cascade Fire.

Tuesday’s announcement comes after a Cal Fire report in May that found PG&E equipment caused the Camp Fire – the deadliest in California history. The state sent Cal Fire’s findings to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsay, whose office is reviewing it for possible criminal violations by the utility.

Nevada and Yuba County were among area entities to receive recompense from the utility. Yuba County received $12.5 million for damage from the Camp Fire and will receive a still undetermined sum out of 2017’s deadly Cascade Fire, said Yuba County spokesman Russ Brown posting to the community news site YubaNet. The Cascade Fire killed four people, injured one firefighter, destroyed 264 buildings and burned through 9,989 acres. Cal Fire said the October 2017 blaze was caused by sagging power lines owned by the utility.

Nevada County will receive a share of the settlement in a yet-completed allocation process for damage done in 2017’s Lobo and McCourtney fires, Nevada County officials said.

“This settlement goes a long way in helping those public entities put their communities back together, plaintiffs’ attorney Scott Summy said Tuesday afternoon. “They can start to use those public funds to rebuild.”

PG&E said it also reached agreements with public entities hit by the 2015 Butte Fire that killed two people and blackened nearly 71,000 acres in Amador County, which includes the Calaveras County Water District.

In total, the settlement deal involved 14 Northern California cities and counties. It’s unclear when a plan will be approved, but could be sometime next year, Summy said.

In a statement, PG&E said it remains “focused on supporting our customers and communities impacted by wildfires and helping them recover and rebuild,” calling the pacts “an important first step toward an orderly, fair and expeditious resolution of wildfire claims.”

“Our goal throughout the Chapter 11 process is to work collaboratively to fairly balance the interests of our many stakeholders, as well as the customers and communities we serve, as we work toward a timely resolution of our case, while continuing to provide the safe and reliable natural gas and electric service that our customers expect and deserve,” PG&E officials said in the statement.

If PG&E’s bankruptcy plan is approved, the settlement becomes part of the plan, Summy said. PG&E is obligated to pay the full dollar amount of the $1 billion settlement. The cities and counties receiving recompense in the announced deal can reject the settlement if the utility fails to pay out in full.

“There’s incentive for PG&E to fully support payment,” Summy said. “The message is that starting wildfires is costly. Also, that public entities are happy that PG&E came forward to avoid costly litigation.”

In an interview with The Sacramento Bee Tuesday, Paradise Mayor Jody Jones called the mediated settlement fair – and a relief for leaders of the fire-scarred city.

“For me, it is a relief that we didn’t have to go through a long multiple-year trial,” Jones said.

Jones said the town has not yet decided how the money will be spent. A July meeting will be held to start discussions. But, Jones said, the town has extensive infrastructure needs to be addressed, including rebuilding roads, cutting down dangerous trees on private property and building a sewer system.

Butte County officials called the settlement a step towards stabilizing the hard-hit unincorporated areas of the county, including Magalia and Concow.

“This is an important step towards stabilizing the county so we can continue to provide key services to residents, especially as our communities recover from the Camp Fire,” County Counsel Bruce Alpert said in a press statement. “There will be long-term impacts to the county that are unknown and unquantifiable at this time.”

The Camp Fire was the deadliest in California history, killing 85 people, destroying 19,000 structures in Paradise, Concow, Magalia and other rural areas of Butte County and displacing hundreds of residents, many of whom wonder whether and when they will be able to return and rebuild.

With the pact announced Tuesday in San Francisco Federal Court, Jones vowed the foothill town will return.

“The town of Paradise will rebuild and this is an important step toward our recovery,” Jones said in a statement. Jones said she hopes Paradise will receive the money “as soon as possible so we can put it toward rebuilding our infrastructure.”

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.
Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.