A deadline extension and an aggressive effort to track down victims have doubled the number of damage claims against Pacific Gas & Electric over California wildfires started by its equipment.
A filing Tuesday related to the giant utility’s bankruptcy case said more than 80,000 people were now seeking to tap into a relief fund projected to total $13.5 billion.
In his report, a court-appointed accountant charged with identifying and finding additional wildfire victims attributed the increased number of claims to, among other things, “grass-roots campaign efforts of the fire victims themselves.”
Less than three weeks before the previous Oct. 31 deadline, The New York Times reported that about 31,500 victims had filed claims but that 70,000 others could lose out on benefits if they did not act quickly.
Judge Dennis Montali, who is presiding over the bankruptcy case, extended the deadline to Dec. 31. And Judge James Donato of United States District Court, who is responsible for estimating how much PG&E owes wildfire victims, said: “It would be a heartbreaking shame if even 10 percent of the eligible victims don’t file claims for whatever reason. If we’re talking about 50 percent not filing, that’s — that’s intolerable.”
Judge Donato suggested that “someone should be going door to door” to get victims to file claims.
The court appointed Michael Kasolas, an accountant, to do just that. He visited churches, attended community meetings, attached fliers to pizza boxes and ran advertisements in the hardest-hit areas to spread the word.
Steven Skikos, a court-appointed lawyer representing victims’ interests, said fire victims had met and decided to help ensure that others were included in the compensation pool.
“Their relentless outreach to unincluded community members and the displaced fire victims helped change the dynamic of this case,” Mr. Skikos said. “I don’t think many realize how powerful a united fire victim community can be to bring positive change.”
PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection last January after several years of extreme wildfires that were caused by the utility’s equipment. The company estimated its liability in the tens of billions of dollars. The deadliest fire, the 2018 Camp Fire, killed 85 people and destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise.
PG&E’s shareholders and bondholders, along with insurance companies, federal agencies and victims’ representatives, have argued over how much each party should collect out of the bankruptcy case and who should pay the bills.
A hearing in the bankruptcy case is scheduled on Thursday. A significant part of the case has focused on determining how much is owed to victims.
Among the remaining issues is whether the funds set aside for victims will be entirely in cash or partly in PG&E shares. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is seeking to recoup up to $3.9 billion in federal and state emergency services related to wildfires caused by PG&E’s equipment in 2015, 2017 and 2018.
FEMA has made similar requests of utilities in the past, but typically the funds recovered come off the company’s bottom line. In this case, the issue has become wrapped up in the overall equation under which PG&E will emerge from bankruptcy.
The agency said last week that it did not seek to draw on the $13.5 billion expected to be set aside for wildfire victims in the bankruptcy. But it said those receiving benefits from the federal government and from another source for the same losses could be required to repay FEMA.
“FEMA is not seeking to take money away from wildfire survivors,” Bob Fenton, the agency’s regional administrator, said in an email.