Matt Katz: I'm Matt Katz in for Tanzina Vega. The Camp Fire in 2018 was California’s deadliest wildfire ever, devastating the town of Paradise. More than 150,000 acres burned, and thousands of people’s homes were destroyed. In 2019, an investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s electrical transmission lines caused the fire.
Now, reporting from KQED found that while victims of the 2015 Lake County fires, 2017 Wine Country fires, and 2018 Camp Fire are among the nearly 70,000 fire victims that were part of a December 2019 settlement with PG&E, most of them have not been compensated and that PG&E’s Fire Victim Trust, which is tasked with paying survivors, spent $51 million in overhead costs last year.
Lily Jamali, co-host and correspondent at KQED's The California Report met up with wildfire survivors at a rally in Paradise over the weekend. She spoke with people who were upset to learn from her reporting that tens of millions of dollars went to overhead costs while they're still waiting for assistance.
Lily Jamali: It's the trust that's set up for fire victims yet, so many months and years down the line, fire victims haven't seen much.
Victim: Every time she sees smoke, she cries. She had to heal until we can go home in the trust. Until that report came out, I did not realize how well they're being paid, and we're all squished in a tiny house.
Matt Katz: KQED's Lily Jamali is here with us now. Lily, welcome to The Takeaway.
Lily Jamali: Hey, Matt.
m Matt Katz: Lily, just explain a little bit about this settlement with Pacific Gas and Electric Company, PG&E, for the fire victims, and then what you found in your investigation?
Lily Jamali: Yes. In 2019, at the end of the year, PG&E and fire survivors, 70,000 of them reached this settlement that was aimed at compensating them for their losses, we're talking about 70,000 people who lost homes between 2015 and 2018, including in the Camp Fire, which took place in 2018 and destroyed the town of Paradise, killed at least 85 people. This fire victim process was set up to distribute money to them. What we found in our investigation is that in their first year up and running, the Trust spent $51 million of fire victim funds on overhead.
For example, the trustee himself is making $150,000 a month, the top claims administrator is making $1250 an hour, and there's a whole host of Wall Street advisors and lawyers, many of whom are making $1,000 or more an hour themselves, and you have hundreds of staffers processing all of these claims. Those are in some ways, necessary expenses, but I think what's really upsetting to some fire victims is that in that first year, just $7 million went to them.
While the pace of those payments to them has picked up in this calendar year, there's not a lot of transparency about where all that money went. The way that they've broken it out in a recent court filing was in broad categories. It's really hard to tell what went to whom. No names or name, no firms are named really specifically. I think what people want is transparency because after all, this is money that was earmarked for them.
Matt Katz: You said the person running this fund is making $150,000 a month?
Lily Jamali: That's right. Actually, when the trust was first approved in April of last year, he was making $1500 an hour. In a recent video, trustee John Trotter, who's a former California Appeals Court judge said that he had taken a pay cut. He was stepping back in some ways and taking less money in order to, I suppose to try to keep costs down perhaps but really I think there was some concern about how much he was making, to begin with.
Matt Katz: I imagine the fire victims appreciate his sacrifice in taking a pay cut here. How many are still waiting for compensation?
Lily Jamali: The vast majority of the nearly 70,000 fire victims that we're talking about have not gotten any compensation. I think what's frustrating is that this trust was given plenty of runway last year.
The judge, Dennis Montali, who was overseeing the PG&E bankruptcy, which this settlement was an outgrowth of the bankruptcy, he approved their operations in April and pay them retroactive to January 2020 because they said that they've been working on this for those three to four months prior. The question really becomes, "Okay, if you're going to spend $50 million, well, what do you have to show for it?" At this point, 565 families out of 70,000 have had their claims fully processed and started to get paid.
When I say they've started to get paid, they're really getting that 30% of their claim. For example, if I'm owed $1 million, I'm getting $300,000 for now. If I was owed $100,000, I'm getting $30,000 for now. That's partly a function of the way that this trust was set up in the first place. PG&E got fire victims to agree to let them fund this partly with billions of dollars in cash, but also partly with stock in PG&E itself. As we sit here and talk, Matt, fire victims own about a quarter of PG&E through this trust.
m Matt Katz: Wow, so unusual. Victims of the 2018 Camp Fire, we've been talking about them. They're among the people waiting for payment from PG&E, but there are other victims, right, from other fires?
Lily Jamali: That's exactly right. Probably the majority of fire victims are victims of the Camp Fire in Paradise, but there are people who lost homes in Wine Country and Sonoma County, those surrounding communities. In 2017, there was a major firestorm that hit just north of the San Francisco Bay area that year. Several of those fires were caused by PG&E as well and are part of this settlement. I think what's actually among the most heartbreaking elements of this is that there are people who lost their homes in 2015. People who are still living in trailers and lost their homes six years ago almost, who are still waiting for help.
m Matt Katz: Lily, before I let you go, what does Paradise California looked like today?
Lily Jamali: Paradise used to be one of the most beautiful places you'd ever see. It was classic Sierra Nevada, California town and full of pine trees everywhere. Today, when you drive through, you still see so many marks of the fire. There's still piles of rubble in some corners of the town. There's a lot of burned-out trees, so you see these they almost look like match sticks, these black husks of what were once these gorgeous evergreens. It's still a gorgeous place, but it's not anything like it used to be.
m Matt Katz: Lily Jamali is co-host and correspondent at KQED's, The California Report. Lily, tremendous reporting. Thanks so much.
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