Bankruptcy Judge OKs PG&E Plan to Create $105 Million Fund for Fire Victims

A victim of the Camp Fire sought refuge in a Chico parking lot that hundreds of displaced people called home after the disaster. Among the messages scrawled on windows of the vehicle, pictured in January 2019, is one saying "any help in help."  (Kirk Siegler/NPR)

PG&E has received a bankruptcy court's blessing to set up a $105 million fund to help people burned out of their homes by recent Northern California wildfires.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali on Wednesday approved the utility's "wildfire assistance program" — a fund the company says will offer short-term relief to fire victims who are suing the company after losing their property in 2017 and 2018.

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The utility says the money will be targeted to those who are uninsured or underinsured and need help with housing costs or have other urgent needs.

Among those who may be eligible are those who lost their homes during last November's Camp Fire in Butte County. That blaze killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in and around the town of Paradise.

Judge Dennis Montali approved PG&E's proposal despite challenges from wildfire victims' lawyers, who argued the terms of the aid program are too vague and that the relief fund ought to be much larger.

One estimate prepared for victims' attorneys estimated the actual need among those who lost their homes and have inadequate insurance at $480 million.

The attorneys also pointed out that the proposed wildfire assistance program is less than half of a $235 million bonus program for PG&E employees that Montali approved last month.

But Montali said Wednesday he couldn't under the law impose a larger amount, and said the fund, created voluntarily by PG&E, was an "appropriate remedy."

"We are ready, willing and anxious to fund the $105 million," Stephen Karotkin, an attorney for PG&E, told Montali.

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The fund will be run by an independent administrator, who will need court approval. Administrative expenses will be capped at $5 million, and PG&E said it will draw the entire $105 million from its cash reserves.

PG&E said it will not seek any rate increases to pay for the fund.

The company filed for bankruptcy protection in January, saying it faced at least $30 billion in wildfire liabilities.

The utility's equipment has been implicated in starting some of the deadly fires that swept Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties in October 2017. Last week, Cal Fire announced PG&E power lines sparked the Camp Fire.

This story includes reporting from The Associated Press.