California wildfire survivors struggle to rebuild as settlement money pours in

CONCOW, Calif. — Some survivors of California’s deadliest wildfire continue to live in trailers, tents and makeshift homes nearly four years later while awaiting payments from a trust set up to compensate them.

The PG&E Fire Victim Trust has paid less than half, or $5.2 billion, of the more than $13 billion owed to survivors in the two years since its inception, according to the latest data.

The trust was created in 2020 after Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility found responsible for the fire, declared bankruptcy following the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and displaced around 50,000 others in Butte County, Northern California.

The statement came after the state’s largest utility pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter related to the camp fire.

“We’re not even close to recovering,” said Concow resident and Camp Fire survivor Inez Salinas.

Inez Salinas’ temporary trailer and car in Concow, California.Andri Tambunan for NBC News
Salinas and her daughter River in front of their temporary trailer.
Salinas and her daughter River in front of their temporary trailer.Andri Tambunan for NBC News

She said she had not received enough money from the trust to rebuild her life: “I just want to move on. I want to move forward. »

Salinas received her first payment of about $60,000 from the trust earlier this year, she said, and used part of it to pay legal fees, buy materials for a new property where a “small house” is being built and has spent the rest trying to make ends meet as a single mother.

Salinas owes about $200,000 in total, according to the determination letter she received from the trust, but neither she nor her lawyer knows when it will be paid in full.

“With each fire, the people from the previous fire are forgotten,” she said. “Please don’t forget us. »

For survivors of the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, time is measured by before and after. Before a phalanx of flames advanced from a mountain ridge above Paradise in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, residents of Concow and nearby communities could barely see the properties of their neighbors through the dense ponderosa pines.

Image: The campfire burns in the hills on November 10, 2018 near Oroville, California.
The campfire burns near Oroville, California on November 10, 2018.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Image: Families seeking information from police and firefighters fill the State Theater in Oroville, California on the fifth day of the deadly camp fire on November 12, 2018.
Families seeking information from police and firefighters fill the State Theater in Oroville, California on the fifth day of the camp’s deadly fire on November 12, 2018.Karl Mondon/MediaNews Group via Getty Images File

Today, barren plots where houses once brushed the forest sit sadly amid scorched stumps and blackened trees.

PG&E has been accused of starting around 30 wildfires since 2017, partly due to faulty or obsolete electrical equipment, wiping out approximately 23,000 homes and businesses across the state and killing over 100 people.

As part of its restructuring after filing for bankruptcy in 2019, PG&E created the Fire Victim Trust to administer claims filed by about 70,000 victims of wildfires that investigators found responsible between 2015 and 2018. But it was slowed by the pandemic and corporate restructuring, a spokesperson for the trust said.

“The bankruptcy is what got everything into such a complicated situation,” said trust spokesman Steve Burns. “None of this is easy.”

An expected shortfall extended the deadline when half of the promised settlement money, comprised of PG&E stock, consistently traded below what was estimated when the deal was struck, added Burns.

Earlier this month, the trust sold 35 million PG&E shares to contribute to the settlement fund. The net proceeds from this sale were over $477 million.

Despite the setbacks, the trust has issued award notices to more than 80% of claimants and has set a goal of reaching 90% by the end of the year.

“My goal is to help as many people as possible get their lives back, their homes, their businesses back,” Cathy Yanni, who oversees the Fire Victim Trust, said in a statement.

“Stuck at ground zero”

The campfire erupted shortly after 6 a.m. on November 8, 2018. In addition to the 85 dead, it wiped out the town of Paradise, destroyed 13,696 single-family homes and charred over 153,000 acres.

Concow resident Eric Sewall was home with his six children when the smell of smoke lured him outside. Flames were already surrounding the north side of his property as he rushed to get his children to safety.

“I’ve never seen anything so bad in my life,” he said.

As he rushed to evacuate her children, Inez Salinas was inside the trailer she shared with her daughter, River, who was 2 and had slept on and off that night.

Salinas was still awake around 6 a.m. when the smell of smoke took hold of the interior. Outside, the sky glowed orange as propane tanks exploded in the distance.

Salinas put River in the car and grabbed her phone, purse, and a bag of clean laundry from the trailer. She sped up winding mountain roads as “flames bigger than trees” approached, she said.

Over the next few years, Salinas and her daughter moved from cars to caravans and tents. She cobbled together income working various jobs as a cannabis trimmer and farmhand, building fences, clearing land and volunteering as a firefighter. She traded favors with neighbors, exchanging goods and housework for the same.

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