SACRAMENTO (AP) — A California utility that operated power lines that ignited several huge, deadly wildfires has agreed to pay $1 billion in damages to 14 local governments.
More than half of the money from Pacific Gas & Electric would go to four governments impacted by a 2018 fire that killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in Paradise.
A total of $270 million would go to Paradise, which was mostly destroyed in the blaze. The town had 26,000 residents before the fire and now has less than 3,000 people. It has lost more than 90% of its tax revenue.
"There is some relief and hope in knowing that we will have some financial stability," Paradise Town Manager Lauren Gill said. "We can't do disaster recovery and rebuild the town if we don't have people to do it."
"They don't actually admit liability in these resolutions and that's very common for defendants when they're trying to resolve cases," said attorney John Fiske, who is representing Paradise. "But what I see is that there is a board that's trying to move forward. I see a board that is trying to get PG&E out of bankruptcy."
Fiske, with the Baron & Budd law firm, said this is a critical time when those who used to call Paradise home are deciding if they will call it home permanently ever again.
"It was really important to the local governments that they be seen as leaders in resolving these claims to get PG&E out of bankruptcy and to move forward focusing on mitigation and safety," Fiske told FOX40.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January as it faced at least $30 billion in potential damages in lawsuits filed by local governments, insurance companies and private property owners.
While Tuesday's settlement would resolve the government claims, it still must be approved by a bankruptcy court. That likely won't happen until lawsuits by insurance companies and private property owners are resolved.
"The bankruptcy court approval is not trivial," said Mike Danko, part of a group of attorneys who represent about 2,800 wildfire victims in a lawsuit against PG&E. Danko said they are "definitely not" close to resolving the lawsuit.
PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty called the settlement "an important first step toward an orderly, fair and expeditious resolution of wildfire claims."
"We remain focused on supporting our customers and communities impacted by wildfires and helping them recover and rebuild," he said.
High winds knocking down power lines during the hot, dry summer months have been blamed for starting several of the state's most destructive wildfires.
Last month, regulators agreed to let utilities temporarily cut off electricity to possibly hundreds of thousands of customers during peak fire conditions to avoid starting more wildfires.
The outages could mean multiday blackouts for cities as large as San Francisco and San Jose, Northern California's major power provider warned in a recent filing with the utilities commission.
"Nobody who lives in the wildfire zone should consider themselves to have reliable electricity. They should prepare accordingly," Mike Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, told the Sacramento Press Club on Tuesday.
California's other two investor-owned utilities have also warned that wildfire liabilities could force them to raise rates later this year.
State lawmakers are considering legislation that would set up a fund to help utility companies pay damages related to wildfires caused by their equipment.
California state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa, said the fund could total anywhere between $24 billion and $50 billion, mostly paid for by utilities and their shareholders.
"It's important that we put together a program that ratepayers aren't the victims once again," he said.