PG&E agreed to pay billions to Camp Fire survivors. But lots of funds have gone to admin costs instead

The Camp Fire ripped through the town of Paradise in November 2018, becoming the most destructive and deadliest fire in state history. More than 80 people died. The fire was sparked by Pacific Gas and Electric’s faulty equipment. As part of a bankruptcy settlement, PG&E agreed to pay more than $13 billion to victims of the Camp Fire and other recent fires in Northern California. The money was put in a special Fire Victims Trust.

But KQED reveals that nearly all of the victims haven’t seen a dime of that money. Meanwhile, the trust has paid out about $50 million in fees. 

Lily Jamali, co-host of KQED’s The California Report, says many Paradise residents were retirees who planned to live the rest of their lives comfortably in their homes. 

She gives the example of Bill Cook, a 70-year-old man who had a six-bedroom, 3000 square foot home. “Now he is now living with nine of his family members in a house in Davis, where he is having to eat into his savings to rent. He’s paying three times what he paid on his mortgage in Paradise. And honestly, I think he probably considers himself among the lucky people.”

She describes life in Paradise now: “There are so many people that are still living in trailers that are really stuck in limbo and desperately need this money now.”

She explains that on paper, the fund is $13.5 billion, but it was conceived in a very complicated way. “PG&E decided to set it up with half cash and half stock in PG&E itself. … It’s really tethered their [fire survivors] compensation to how PG&E performs year after year. And PG&E obviously has quite a bit of risk exposure compared to other companies, because year after year, they are causing fires.” 

Jamali says PG&E insists they’re doing everything possible to improve their lines, but regulators have criticized them for not finishing the work as quickly as possible. 

And so, out of the tens of thousands of fire survivors, only about 350 people have had their claims fully processed, and they’re only getting 30% of what they’re owed, explains Jamali. 

“Because the pot of money, with that stock component included, fluctuates every single day. So if PG&E stock is up or down $1 on a given day, that pot of money is worth $500 million more or less.”