Thousands missing out on compensation for California fires

Although more than 100,000 California residents harmed by last year’s devastating wildfires are entitled to compensation by the utility company blamed for the blazes, less than half have filed claims, a court hearing revealed last week. That’s prompting criticism that the company, Pacific Gas and Electric, has done too little to reach out to victims, many of whom lost everything in the fires.

Left without a place to live, one of those victims, 22-year-old Jessie Messenger, moved to Oregon to live with her then-boyfriend and his relatives, putting her out of reach of the mass mailings and TV and radio ads by PG&E to publicize the compensation program. “I was mostly in Oregon and I didn’t care to really think about it,” said Messenger, who returned to Northern California earlier this year.

The sentiment is shared by others trying to move on from a devastating event. “I’ve talked to a handful who said they weren’t going to [file a claim], that they just wanted to move on,” said Julie Lucito, an insurance broker agent who lost her residence in Paradise, California, and an investment home nearby, along with most of her business.

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“I’ve been working for free for pretty much of a year,” said Lucito, who has devoted herself to helping homeowners affected by wildfires with insurance issues, such as maintaining liability coverage on their land.

In Messenger’s case, it was only because her ex’s grandparents reached out to her that she learned that she could file a claim with PG&E for compensation from the November 2018 blaze that destroyed all her possessions, including china and jewelry left by her mother, who had died of breast cancer two years earlier.

The lasting damage of the worst wildfire in California’s history

“Whatever I get will be more than I have,” Messenger told CBS MoneyWatch. “Losing my mom at 19 was what I thought was going to be the extent of what would happen to me,” she added in relaying the deep emotional scar left by the experience of fleeing the flames with only a handful clothes.

“The fires that have started have caused a lot of anxiety,” said Messenger of wildfires currently burning in Northern California that have destroyed or damaged more than 100 structures. PG&E last Thursday imposed electrical blackouts after wind gusts fanned a wildfire in Northern California, prompting evacuations in a region north of San Francisco.

Lucito echoed the sentiment, describing how seeing a field burning will get her heart racing and conjure up reminders of baby photos and other irreplaceable items lost. “There’s good days and bad days,” she said.

PG&E declared bankruptcy in January, saying it faced as much as $30 billion in liabilities for several massive wildfires in 2017 and 2018 linked to its equipment. The fires killed 130 people and destroyed thousands of homes. But the effort to compensate victims has fallen short, with the deadline to file claims having expired Oct. 21. A court is now considering whether to extend that deadline.

“It’s not that people didn’t have time, but that people don’t have the information and haven’t been reached,” said Mike Danko, an attorney who represents 6,000 victims of wildfires. “I have a few clients in FEMA camps and — I don’t want to say it — but it’s almost like zombies, where they are walled off from the whole process and disoriented because they’ve lost their homes and possessions and don’t have the community in which they were living.”

PG&E, the largest utility in the state, said it mailed claim forms to 6.2 million potential victims and publicized the process online and in radio and television ads. PG&E strived to ensure that people had the necessary information to file claims on time, a company spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch in an email.

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Yet that hasn’t allayed concerns by the federal judge charged with determining how much PG&E sets aside to cover property and other losses. In a hearing last Monday, U.S. District Judge James Donato deemed the low claims rate unacceptable. He also expressed displeasure when told that no one had gone door-to-door at three FEMA trailer parks in Northern California to make sure those eligible to seek payment had filed a claim.

“PG&E should have gone to each of those trailers and helped them fill out the forms,” Donato said, according to the website Law360.

U.S. bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali also chimed in, calling the situation “unacceptable” and “heartbreaking,” according to the industry publication and an attorney who attended Monday’s hearing. Montal will rule in early November whether to extend the deadline.

“Judge Montali has said victims are the most important voice in the room. I think he’s likely to extend that deadline,” said Sarah Foss, a legal analyst at Debtwire.

Regardless of what the court decides, those harmed by the wildfires should still fill out a piece of paper stating so, she added. “If you believe you are owed any money at all, from a house, car, emotional distress or you had to move, you should file a claim, it’s not necessary to write out a legal pleading.”

Donato in February is expected to rule on how much the utility needs to set aside for a trust fund to compensate victims. PG&E has earmarked $8.4 billion to compensate victims of the fire, another $11 billion to insurers and $1 billion to public agencies.

Wildfires rage across California, forcing evacuations

Regardless of what the utility ultimately pays out, recovering from the wildfires is a long haul even for those who had insurance and some money in the bank.

“We had 11 years left on our mortgage, and now we have another 30,” said Lucito, who has since purchased a new home with her husband, whom she married not long after losing all her property.

“It does’t matter what happens as far as the settlement — it effects us the rest of our lives,” said her husband, Stephen Estes, 64, who is postponing the retirement he’d planned in two years. “At my age, I don’t have time to rebuild.”

But Estes is able to find a silver lining, saying losing all their collective possessions helped the couple start out in an even more unified fashion.

“Before the fire, it was hers, mine and what we accumulated was ours — now it’s all ours,” he said.

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