The images are heartbreaking. However, for the survivors of the Camp Fire wildfire, the reality is far more devastating and tragic. Our hearts go out to everyone impacted by the wildfires in Butte County. Even though the fires are still raging, the work to determine how the fires started and who is liable for the damages caused by the fires has already begun. It appears that the fires may have started because of a problem with a utility line. Sadly, because of a recent law, customers may bear some of the cost if the utility company’s equipment is found to be responsible for starting the Camp Fire.
Can Customers Be Required to Pay for Some of the Damages Caused by the California Wildfires?
Could the victims of the horrific Camp Fire end up paying for part of the losses suffered by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) if it is blamed for causing the fire? Legislation passed earlier this year could raise utility rates so that PG&E customers share in the cost of California’s deadly wildfires. The bill was signed into law and provides special provisions for passing some of the cost of the 2017 fires to consumers. For future fires, the law permits the California Public Utilities Commission to consider several factors to determine if utility companies, including PG&E, can pass some of the costs of future fires to its customers.
With stories appearing that indicate PG&E may also be facing liability for the Camp Fire wildfire as it did for many of the fires that devasted parts of California in 2017, stock prices plunged 60 percent as stockholders, and other parties assessed the utility company’s potential liability for the fire raging in Butte County.
However, after a statement by the president of the California Public Utilities Commission last week, stocks rebounded by almost 38 percent. President Michael Parker stated in an interview that provisions of the new legislation would make it easier for the utility company to remain financially healthy by passing on the cost of wildfires to customers. However, President Parker also said that additional legislation could be required to ensure that the law applies to the fires in 2018.
Should PG&E Be Able to Pass Costs of the Camp Fire Wildfire and Other Fires to Customers?
Some view the legislation as unfair because it potentially passes on additional costs to the fire victims. However, one of the purposes of the law was to help utility companies like PG&E to operate. Without access to capital, it is argued that the utility company may not be able to provide service and carry out safety measures.
In a recent request from PG&E to U.S. energy regulators, the utility giant said that it wanted to pay a sizeable dividend to shareholders and strengthen its system against wildfires. That was the reason given to energy regulators to justify PG&E’s request to increase customer’s bills. PG&E has already said in a regulatory filing that if it is determined that PG&E’s equipment caused the Camp Fire, the company will face “significant liability in excess of insurance coverage.”
Those who were in favor of the law and who support that law believe that it is crucial legislation that was needed to protect utility companies. Others viewed the legislation as an unfair bailout that protected shareholders even though the company may have been negligent in reducing the risk of fires.
How Devastating is the Camp Fire?
The update on November 28, 2018, stated that 149,000 acres had been burned and the fire was only 55 percent contained. Just under 12,800 structures, including homes, had been destroyed. Seventy-six (76) deaths had been confirmed, and 1,276 people were still unaccounted for at that time. With much more work to be done to contain the Camp Fire, the loss of life and property could continue to increase throughout Butte County and beyond.
In addition to the direct loss from the fire, as the rainy season approaches, additional lives could be lost, and property may be destroyed as dangerous mudslides are caused by the loss of vegetation from the fire. The true impact of the northern California wildfire may not be known for some time.
The Fire Completely Destroys Paradise, CA
An article in BBC News by Roland Hughes has a clear timeline of the Camp Fire that completely destroyed the town of Paradise. On November 8, 2018, PG&E filed an incident report at 6:15 a.m. that described damage to a power line just outside of Pulga. While it is not known if this incident was the start of the Camp Fire, many people are pointing at the report in support of the allegations against PG&E. The utility company had warned customers that it could cut off power the day before because strong winds were expected. PG&E later determined that shutting off power was not warranted.
Within minutes of the incident report being filed, the first reports of a wildfire just outside of Pulga came in from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Within an hour, evidence of the growing wildfire can be seen from Paradise, which is about 25 miles from Pulga. The staff of the Adventist Health Feather River Hospital in Paradise began evacuating patients by any means possible.
By 7:50 a.m., reports from as far away as Oroville in the Sacramento Valley are coming in that they can see flames in the direction of Paradise. As the sky continues to darken with smoke and ash, people begin sensing the danger. Some prepare to leave.
At 9:26 a.m. some of the nurses and staff from the Adventist hospital are trying to make it to safety when they hear that one of the ambulances has caught fire. Realizing they will not make it out, they shelter with patients in a home that is not on fire as they work to clear vegetation and spray water on the home as they wait for help to arrive. The nurses and patients return to the hospital and make it out just as the fire begins to consume the hospital.
The fire swept through the entire town of Paradise leaving behind charred vehicles, destroyed homes, and nothing but black and burnt surfaces. The fire continues to burn through other towns and cities in northern California putting thousands of people at risk as brave men and women continue to fight the fire to get it contained.
Family members of missing individuals are being asked to provide DNA samples to help police identify the remains of bodies as they are found. Police dogs are assisting in the search for bodies through piles of ash that represent homes.
Is PG&E Responsible for the Camp Fire?
The Camp Fire continues to rage in northern California. Even though a cause has not been determined for the fire, many people are discussing whether PG&E could be responsible for causing this fire as it has been responsible for many other fires in the past. Cal Fire investigations determined that PG&E was responsible for 17 wildfires in 2017 that burned through northern California.
As mentioned above, within minutes of a report being filed by PG&E stating that it noted a problem with a high voltage line near Pulga, Cal Fire began receiving reports of a wildfire near the Pulga area. Now known as the Camp Fire, the wildfire consumed Paradise as it moved to Concow and Magalia later in the day. PG&E has also filed another incident report stating that a high voltage line near Concow in Butte County also had an outage around the same time as reports of the Camp Fire began coming into the fire department.
Cal Fire officials have confirmed that they are investigating two sites where the wildfire may have started. However, they cautioned that there is not a determination of a cause and have not released any details of the investigation. PG&E has admitted that firefighters were at the scenes of both outages. In the second incident report filed by PG&E, the utility company confirmed that it was cooperating with Cal Fire and that Cal Fire had gathered related equipment.
The owner of Pulga, the small town where the first incident was reported, had told reporters that she was on vacation the day before the Camp Fire began when she received an email from PG&E. The email informed her that PG&E crews would be working on high-power lines on her property because “they were having problems with sparks.”
According to the owner, crews were there on her property on Wednesday, but she is not aware of their findings or what they may have done while on her property. Fire investigators had blocked off the area surrounding the power lines on her property as a crime scene. The owner’s home was destroyed, but many of the other structures were spared from fire damage. According to the AP reporter who was at the site, the area where the blaze reportedly began is roughly in the same area where the sparks were allegedly reported by PG&E.
Helping the Victims of the Camp Fire in Northern California
Some victims of the Camp Fire are staying in shelters, and others have found places to stay with family or friends. Thousands of people have lost everything they owned. While they are thankful they were able to get out of harm’s way, some victims face long-term displacement with little to no financial means for recovery. In addition to losing their homes, people who worked in Paradise and other cities devastated by the Camp Fire also lost their jobs. Therefore, they have no income and no place to live.
Sadly, some victims have no insurance if they were renting their homes, especially tenants in lower income brackets. Some victims are living in parking lots as they wait for help. One person said that they are just being told to wait for help and that things will be okay, but nobody has answers for them.
Michael R. Hart, a spokesperson for FEMA, is urging people to file an insurance claim if they have insurance and contact a FEMA recovery center for help. In addition, he states that some evacuation centers still have room for additional victims displaced by the wildfires in northern California.
What can you do to help? FEMA cautions people to ensure that an organization is approved by the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) before donating. Some of the organizations that are working with wildfire survivors include:
- United Way of Northern California
- California Fire Foundation
- North Valley Community Foundation
- Airbnb’s Open Homes Program
- California Community Foundation
Other ways that you can help the Camp Fire survivors is to donate blood and volunteer your time. You can explore ways to volunteer your time by contacting the Red Cross. Many organizations are conducting events and collecting supplies for the victims of the Camp Fire.
The Lawyers of The Thompson Law Office Are Helping Victims of the California Wildfires
The lawyers of Thompson Law are diligently working on the Camp Fire case. We want to help the families of victims who died in the northern California wildfires and survivors of the wildfires recover the compensation they deserve.
Whether the compensation is from an insurance company covering individual property or business property or it is from a utility company, victims of the Camp Fire deserve to be compensated. Lawsuits are already being filed alleging liability for the California wildfires. Our lawyers can help you determine your legal options and help you take steps to protect your right to recover compensation from the party or parties who are responsible for the devastation caused by the fires.
Please contact our office to speak with one of our lawyers. We offer free consultations for victims of the wildfires in northern California. Call 1-650-513-6111 to speak with an attorney to discuss the details of your case.