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Opinion

Editorial: California wildfire victims are facing a new tragedy

Camp fire in Paradise
Ariel view of destruction from the Camp fire in Paradise, Calif., off Clark Road.
(Los Angeles Times)

After the catastrophic Camp fire tore through the Sierra foothill town of Paradise, Calif., in November, its residents scattered across the state and country.

They didn’t have much choice. Their town was effectively demolished in the blaze; homes, schools, workplaces, businesses and prospects for the future went up in so much smoke. Many of them lost family members, friends and neighbors as well. At least 85 people died in the wildfire, the state’s most destructive and deadliest in recorded history.

For the record:
2:46 PM, Oct. 14, 2019 This editorial overstated the number of customers whose power was shut off in San Diego County. San Diego Gas and Electric informed 30,000 customers that they might lose power, but only 395 actually did.

Now, many survivors of that wildfire and others ignited in recent years by Pacific Gas & Electric’s power lines may face more heartache because of an unusually early deadline for filing damage claims, losing out on payouts that might have helped them rebuild their lives.

Victims of utility-sparked wildfires normally have two years to file claims for personal injury and three years for property loss. But when PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year to limit its wildfire liability, the judge set an Oct. 21 cutoff date for all such claims to be filed. That’s less than a year from the day that high-tension power lines malfunctioned in high winds and sparked the Camp fire.

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Typically, the editorial board doesn’t weigh in on whether disaster victims should file damage claims, leaving it up to individuals to decide if it is worth the trouble. But this is an unusual case, and people with legitimate losses should be careful not to miss the looming deadline given the truncated filing period and the massive scale of devastation in places such as Paradise and Santa Rosa, where the 2017 Tubbs fire wiped out whole neighborhoods and killed 23 people. So many people’s lives have been upended, and many still have not had the time to take stock of all that was lost.

Some people may also be under the misapprehension that the bankruptcy means that there’s little or no money available to pay claims. It does not. In fact, the amount the judge sets aside to pay victims will be informed by the number of claims received. About 30,000 people are believed to be making claims so far, but attorneys representing the wildfire victims says there may be 70,000 in total with valid cases for recompense. That’s a lot of victims potentially left out.

Filing a claim — a two-page report that can be filled out online — doesn’t guarantee any compensation. Victims will need to submit proof later to show their losses were real. But not filing a claim now means closing the door forever on the possibility. That would be a boon to PG&E, which would keep that money for its shareholders, but a double tragedy for those who still need help recovering from the fires.


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