People who survived the Butte Fire that burned 110 square miles of central Calaveras County in September 2015 lined up Tuesday afternoon to tell their elected Board of Supervisors what to do with the $20 million settlement paid by Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility giant held accountable by Cal Fire for sparking the costliest disaster in the county’s modern history.

“We lost everything, our home, our property, the forest,” one woman told the board in San Andreas. “We’ve come back and rebuilt and moved back in November 2016.”

“We need to rebuild roads in the area,” a real estate agent said. “If we can get the roads fixed I can encourage people to move up there.”

“Catastrophic firestorms, like the Butte Fire, we have to be proactive now in this age of firestorms,” said Pat Guttmann of Mokelumne Hill. “I recommend a large part of the Butte Fire settlement should be spent on equipment for our local fire departments. At least two new fire rigs to remain the county during mutual aid situations. Portable fire hydrants and hoses to extend our water supply into the wildland.”

She said it’s vital to be proactive, to beef up at the front end so the county respond immediately to small fires and prevent the firestorms and fire-nadoes, put them out before they burn up the whole county.

Others spoke about needs for the Mountain Ranch Youth Alliance Resource Center, and the Mountain Ranch Food Pantry. District 2 took the brunt of the Butte Fire and one of the hardest hit communities was Mountain Ranch, a Youth Alliance and Food Pantry representative said. People there fought on their own to save the heart of Calaveras County and the community has a reputation for being self sufficient.

“We could use funds to make all our restrooms ADA compliant and for backup power facilities for future disasters,” she said.

Lynn Darnsted, director of the Mountain Ranch Food Pantry, said the organization is self sufficient funded by donations.

Damaged roads

Earlier in the day, workers were burning more Butte Fire-killed trees on private property off Mountain Ranch Road near Rail Road Flat Road. A section of Rail Road Flat Road was coned along its edge with a clutter of Butte Fire-killed trees debris that rolled down across the road in recent storms.

Further out in the Butte Fire burn scar, potholes pocked Whiskey Slide Road and West Murray Creek Road, which turned to single lane pavement in sections. Further out in the burn scar still, two Cal Fire workers used six tripods and surveying equipment next to Doster Road, another narrow, pot-holed, deteriorating road with blackened Butte Fire-killed trees on both sides. They declined to say what they were surveying.

County administrators said the Cal Fire workers were contracted with Cal OSHA to investigate the death of a county worker Monday at a tree removal work site there on Doster Road in the Butte Fire scar.

‘Call to action’

District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi appealed to his constituents in Butte Fire-impacted communities to come to Tuesday’ meeting to have their say on how the PG&E settlement funds should be used.

“It is critically important for members of our community to speak up during public comment to explain why the settlement funds should be used for finishing repairs on the roads and county infrastructure that were damaged by the Butte Fire as well as prevent future fires and promote community resiliency,” Garamendi said in a social media post earlier this week.

Garamendi also put together a five-page memo proposing how to best spend the $20 million settlement. An itemized list set aside $14.6 million for road repairs in the Butte Fire scar, and $1 million to be held for final federal and state reviews and audits.

He said he created the document as a straw man, a conversation-starter, a first step. “you have my opinion, it’s in front of you,” Garmendi said.

District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper asked about “possible funds we have to pay back to FEMA, I’d like to hear more about that before we move forward on this.”

Rebecca Callen, the county auditor-controller reiterated what she told the Board of Supervisors in late February, that Calaveras County owes the Federal Emergency Management Agency $1 million or more in disaster recovery grant funding for the 2015 Butte Fire due to bad record-keeping.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General will likely audit the county’s spending for tree and debris removal, Callen told the Board of Supervisors in February. On Tuesday she said the county should be prepared to pay FEMA a million dollars minimum. She said she doesn’t have a crystal ball and she couldn’t predict how much the maximum the county could have to return to FEMA might be.

Garamendi asked about unreimbursed county expenditures during the Butte Fire and Callen focused on estimated expenditures of $400,000 to $500,000 spent from the General Fund by the Sheriff’s Office, funds that were not tracked closely because there was no hope of reimbursement.

District 2 Supervisor Dennis Mills asked how much interest the county was making off the Butte Fire settlement, and Callen estimated probably about $350,000 annually, maybe $80,000 per quarter net.

Joshua Pack, the county director of public works and transportation, tried to explain to the board why it will take about $14.6 million to improve and repair all roads damaged in the Butte Fire scar.

“We need that to pave, repave and improve every road to the same condition or better than it was before the fire,” Pack said. “Improving ditches, we need sizable investment in construction to help improve those roads, over a three-year period. The total includes equipment and seasonal employees.

Pack said the $14.6 million estimate does not include significant widening of the roads network or work on private property. It does include vegetation and tree removal on public property. The priority will be on primary roads and heavy traffic roads, and transition to lower volume roads over the three-year period.

District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway asked if the $14.6 million would all be out-of-pocket from the county roads department, and Pack said yes, his plan assumes no reimbursement.

“A lot roads are destroyed and we’re talking about pulverizing the asphalt and putting in new road surfaces,” Pack said. “Impacts of the fire continue today, a lot of the flooding we’ve seen are the results of tree mortality and the Butte Fire. A road is three-dimensional, the road surface, culverts and ditches. We continue to have issues today with debris coming down off hills in these storms and blocking ditches and culverts. This will continue to happen for years.”

Manuel Lopez, the county’s interim administrative officer, told the board before their discussion he and other county staff need direction from the board on how to spend the Butte Fire settlement.

He summarized the background: On Sept. 9, 2015, the Butte Fire ignited and burned in Amador and Calaveras counties.

“The advent of the Butte Fire is without a doubt the most significant and catastrophic event in recent memory for the populace of Calaveras County,” Lopez said

The Butte Fire destroyed 548 residential structures, 368 non-residential structures, 4 commercial structures, and damaged an additional 22 structures, Lopez said, but he did not mention two civilians who died in the Butte Fire. A total of 70,868 acres burned with much of that land being private property.

In February 2018, Calaveras County filed a complaint against PG&E in Superior Court, Lopez said. In November 2018, Calaveras County and PG&E made a settlement agreement in which PG&E paid the county $25.4 million in exchange for dismissal of the complaint. In addition, the county and PG&E released each other from any other claims or liability stemming from the Butte Fire.

In December 2018, after payment of attorneys’ fees and legal fees and expenses incurred in connection with the settlement, the county received $20,252,034.98 from PG&E, Lopez said.

The settlement funds are non-recurring, one-time funds over which the Board of Supervisors has total discretion and can appropriate the funds as it chooses. In effect, the settlement funds can be considered General Purpose Revenue, Lopez said.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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