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Nation & World

Year Ends With California Fire Victims Waiting For Compensation

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tens of thousands of Californians are still waiting for compensation. Fires that were caused by a local utility destroyed their homes and their businesses and - in some cases - killed loved ones. For some of these families, the wait has been five years. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Lily Jamali reports on what's caused the delay.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: This summer, Cheryl Maynard (ph) thought she saw light at the end of what had been a long and very dark tunnel. The utility PG&E was emerging from bankruptcy protection. It entered Chapter 11 after its equipment sparked the fire that burned down thousands of homes, including Maynard's, in the northern California town of Paradise.

CHERYL MAYNARD: PG&E wildfire victims could not wait for the bankruptcy to end. It was long. It was exhausting. I mean, it was just a horrific process to go through on top of running for your life.

JAMALI: Today, Maynard is one of 80,000 survivors of several fires still waiting to get paid from a trust that PG&E funded as it left bankruptcy. So far, only 499 victims have received partial payments.

MAYNARD: So here we are two years later. We just thought our lives would be able to start on over again. And we're just heartbroken it hasn't happened.

JAMALI: One of the people running the Fire Victim Trust is Cathy Yanni.

CATHY YANNI: We're very aware of the fact that due to COVID and economic conditions that people really, really are in need of getting some money.

JAMALI: PG&E declined to be interviewed but said in a statement that it's not involved with disbursing payments from the trust. Getting everyone fully compensated could take a while, says University of California Hastings bankruptcy law professor Jared Ellias.

JARED ELLIAS: This is just a tremendously complex process.

JAMALI: That's in part because the trust needs to verify what people claim they lost. And also...

ELLIAS: If you just push money out the door, it might mean that there wouldn't be enough money at the end to pay for the damages and the pain of the people who actually did suffer damages caused by PG&E's equipment.

JAMALI: And perhaps the biggest complication - it's not clear how much the trust is worth. In a rare outcome, even by bankruptcy standards, PG&E funded half of the trust not with cash but with its own stock. The Fire Victim Trust now owns more than one-fifth of PG&E. That means on any given day, depending on the stock's price, the trust may be worth billions more or billions less. Other groups got cash settlements, including insurance companies and municipalities damaged by fire.

WILL ABRAMS: I'm very worried for the wildfire survivors being able to piece their lives back together.

JAMALI: Will Abrams lost his home in California's 2017 wine country fires. While many attorneys for survivors encouraged them to take the deal PG&E offered, Abrams opposed it. He says the trust owning stock means the future of fire survivors depends on shoring up the value of the company that hurt them.

ABRAMS: If I'm being used as a bargaining chip for not pressing safety and security with PG&E, that's something that I am very uncomfortable with.

JAMALI: PG&E has said fire survivors voted overwhelmingly to approve the settlement they got. KQED's reporting found irregularities in the voting process, including ballots that victims received after a deadline set by the court. For now, the trust has yet to sell any stock, and it may be years before fire survivors know if they'll be made whole for all they lost. For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE WHO RIDE WITH GIANTS' "THE GUARDIANS OF THE DEEPNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.