Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that sparked the devastating 2015 Butte Fire which scorched more than 110 square miles of Calaveras County, still owes $212 million in Butte Fire-related claims and liabilities, according to a quarterly report the utility filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission last week.
That’s relevant because PG&E Corp.’s top financial executives said during a bankruptcy meeting on April 29 in San Francisco, they still have not determined when the utility giant can start compensating victims of more recent wildfires started by the utility’s equipment.
Among those Butte Fire victims who sued PG&E were relatives of Mark McCloud, 65, and Owen Goldsmith, 82, residents of Jesus Maria and the M-24 Ranch gated community outside Mountain Ranch, who both died in the Butte Fire. Authorities said McCloud and Goldsmith refused to evacuate during the blaze Families of both men filed wrongful death claims against PG&E and its contractors, ACRT Inc. and Trees Inc.
Marcella Kern, McCloud’s daughter, was paid an undisclosed settlement by PG&E in May 2017, Kern’s attorney, Brian Osborne of Ventura, said Wednesday in a phone interview. Osborne said he could not say how much Kern was paid because the settlement included a confidentiality agreement.
Stephanie Mathes and her sister, Karen Goldsmith, who filed a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from Owen Goldsmith’s death, have not been paid by PG&E. The women’s attorney, Amanda Riddle of Millbrae, said Wednesday,
“ That case did not settle before the bankruptcy so, no, the sisters were never paid by PG&E. There are about 1,000 out of the almost 3,900 Butte cases that are still outstanding and the Mathes/Goldsmith case is one of them.”
Asked on May 1 if PG&E has paid all victims of the 2015 Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties, or if there are there still unpaid settlements due to go to individual residents, renters and property owners, a PG&E spokesperson responded, “Our focus remains on supporting those affected by the Butte Fire in 2015. Over the past four years, PG&E has settled more than 2,900 claims. Under the Chapter 11 process, any Butte Fire settlements that have not been paid will be addressed in the bankruptcy case.”
Asked last week and again Wednesday, whether anyone with PG&E could estimate how much PG&E has paid out due to the 2015 Butte Fire, including fines, penalties, settlements, and for repairing damaged utility equipment, a spokesperson repeated the same prepared statement word-for-word.
In the 2015 Butte Fire alone, attorneys representing hundreds of victims and Calaveras County government agencies filed thousands of legal actions against PG&E in the wake of the mega-blaze. The Butte Fire burned 70,868 acres, destroyed 921 structures, including 549 homes, 368 outbuildings and four commercial properties, damaged 44 structures, and resulted in two civilian fatalities.
Back in December 2016, PG&E reported the utility was likely to incur expenses of more than $350 million in connection to the Butte Fire. Cal Fire, which eventually found the utility to blame for sparking the blaze, said they’d seek $90 million for costs of suppressing the Butte Fire and the utility called that estimate reasonable. Asked Wednesday this week if Cal Fire has been paid by PG&E, Josh White, the Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit chief, forwarded questions to
Cal Fire supervisors in Sacramento.
The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors accepted a $25.4 million settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric in November 2018 for damages incurred by the county during the Butte Fire. More than $5 million of that settlement went to lawyers contracted by the county to secure the settlement.
Pacific Gas & Electric remains under multiple criminal investigations stemming from more recent, devastating, deadly wildfires allegedly sparked by its equipment up and down the Golden State, and it’s still grappling with its second bankruptcy in 20 years.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January, saying it faces at least $13 billion in legal claims from wildfire victims. Jason Wells, PG&E’s chief financial officer, said last week the utility doesn’t yet know when it will file a plan to start compensating unpaid victims of wildfires started by the utility’s equipment.
Also in the utility’s 137-page quarterly report filed May 2, PG&E disclosed the utility learned on March 20 that SEC regional staff in San Francisco are investigating PG&E Corporation’s and the utility’s public disclosures and accounting for losses associated with the 2017 and 2018 Northern California wildfires and with the 2015 Butte Fire.
“PG&E Corporation and the Utility are unable to predict the timing and outcome of the investigation,” PG&E staff said in the report, which was signed by Wells and other top PG&E executives.
Asked for comment about the federal Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of Pacific Gas and Electric’s accounting of losses related to four years of wildfires, including the Butte Fire, Brandi Merlo with PG&E marketing and communications, responded, “We have no comment beyond the filing.”
In its most recent filings, Pacific Gas & Electric estimates it has liabilities, in respect to total wildfire-related claims, of $14.21 billion. Most of that total – $10.5 billion – stems from the 2018 Camp Fire that devastated the Paradise area and killed more than 80 people in Butte County, about 175 miles north of Sonora.
Although the cause of the 2018 Camp fire is still under investigation, based on information currently known to PG&E corporation and the utility, and reported to the California Public Utilities Commission and other agencies, PG&E executives believe it is probable the utility’s equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp Fire, the utility’s May 2 filing with the SEC states.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.