SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — Pacific Gas and Electric agreed Tuesday to pay $1 billion in damages to local governments after the utility’s downed power lines were blamed for igniting several wildfires that killed dozens and destroyed thousands of homes
Attorneys representing 14 local public entities announced the settlement with PG&E to cover “taxpayer losses.”
More than half of the settlement is related to the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County that killed 85 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes. It included $270 million to the town of Paradise, which was mostly destroyed in the fire.
The money also covers damage from a 2015 fire in Butte County and a series of 2017 fires in Northern California wine country.
“What we always wanted is to make sure that the taxpayers weren’t on the hook for the damage that the fires caused, said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbit.
Of the massive infrastructure damage, roads took the hardest hit, Rabbitt said. Some melted from the heat. Many other roads survived the fires, but are degrading, buckling under the weight of all the dump trucks helping with rebuilding over the last year and a half.
Of all the counties that won the settlement Tuesday, the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County was the only one that Cal Fire determined not to be caused by PG&E. Officials in Sonoma county did not agree with that assessment and it became a major source of contention during mediation. In the end, PG&E agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to North Bay government entities.
“Recovery resiliency is our number one goal in the county, wanting to make sure that the infrastructure is repaired,” Supervisor Rabbit said. “Not on the taxpayer’s dime but on the person who caused the fire.”
The Texas-based Baron & Budd law firm announced the settlement on behalf of the 14 local governments.
“This money will help local government and taxpayers rebuild their communities after several years of devastating wildfires,” Baron & Budd said in a news release. “The cities and counties will be in a better position to help their citizens rebuild and move forward.”
PG&E Corp. filed for bankruptcy earlier this year citing billions of dollars in expected losses, mostly from lawsuits filed by individual fire victims, businesses and insurance companies. A judge overseeing that case must approve the settlement announced Tuesday.
The utility released a statement that read in part:
“We remain focused on supporting our customers and communities impacted by wildfires and helping them recover and rebuild. This is an important first step toward an orderly, fair and expeditious resolution of wildfire claims and a demonstration of our willingness to work collaboratively with stakeholders to achieve mutually acceptable resolutions. We hope to continue making progress with other stakeholders.”
Last month, regulators approved allowing utilities to cut off electricity to possibly hundreds of thousands of customers to avoid catastrophic wildfires.
The California Public Utilities Commission gave the green light but said utilities must do a better job educating and notifying the public, particularly those with disabilities and others who are vulnerable, and ramp up preventive efforts, such as clearing brush and installing fire-resistant poles.
The precautionary 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.
PG&E anticipates cutting the power only in “truly extreme fire danger weather” while recognizing that there “are safety risks on both sides of this issue,” vice president Aaron Johnson said.
The utility initially planned to de-energize power lines in at-risk rural areas but has since expanded its plans to include high-voltage transmission lines like the one that sparked the Paradise fire.
© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.