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As PG&E negotiates Kincade fire settlement, Sonoma County residents who lost everything go unpaid

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was published in print Monday, before a 9:15 a.m. announcement of the tentative settlement by PG&E and Sonoma County over the Kincade fire. The Press Democrat’s coverage of the settlement is here.

After two months of negotiating, Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s attorneys and Sonoma County prosecutors are due back in court Monday, possibly to announce an agreement that settles District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s 30-count criminal case against the utility.

If the investor-owned utility pleads guilty to the eight felonies and 22 misdemeanors and prosecutors secure fines or other conditions, it will add to the list of official punishments against PG&E for its role in the October 2019 Kincade fire, the largest in Sonoma County history.

The company has already paid $31 million in damages to Sonoma County and the cities of Santa Rosa, Windsor, Cloverdale and Healdsburg; and $125 million to the state.

But nearly two-and-a-half years after the flames, which started with a broken piece of PG&E equipment, many victims in Sonoma County haven’t seen a dime from the company.

In public filings, PG&E has disclosed estimated liabilities as high as $800 million from the fire, but many of the people who lost homes, livelihoods and lifetimes of accumulated treasures and memories say they don’t know when the utility will settle their personal damage claims.

From a cattle rancher to a mother worried about her young son’s lasting trauma, some of those victims expressed exasperation with the utility, the government and even the criminal case, pointing out that none of those measures have helped make them whole.

The Kincade fire began Oct. 23 inside The Geysers, a sprawling complex of geothermal energy facilities nestled in the mountains between Sonoma and Lake counties. Fueled by strong winds, it ultimately grew larger than 77,000 acres and became the largest wildfire in Sonoma County’s history. It displaced more than 200,000 people through evacuations and destroyed 174 homes.

Among its victims were the LaFranchis, cattle ranchers whose family has tended to livestock on the flat bottom of the Knights Valley in the Mayacamas mountains for 110 years. The fire made for one of the steepest challenges in a century of working that land.

Not that Cheryl LaFranchi shies away from hard work.

On a recent Tuesday morning, she met with a Press Democrat reporter on her ranch, but kept a U.S. Department of Agriculture conference meeting running on speakerphone, hitting the unmute button occasionally when addressed.

“Excuse me just one second,” she told the reporter as she marched across a muddy yard, and holding the cellphone (and the USDA meeting) in her mouth, stepped behind a cow, grabbed a pair of emerging legs and pull out a newborn calf. After slapping the animal twice in the chest to make sure its heart would start beating, LaFranchi washed her hands and rejoined both conversations.

LaFranchi hasn’t had much time to catch a breath since the early morning hours of Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. That night, after three days watching the Kincade fire burn on the ridgeline that defines the northern side of the Knights Valley, the LaFranchis fled as strong winds pushed flames across the flat valley bottom. Cheryl and her family escaped just ahead of the destruction, driving out through the fire as the wind and flames bore down on the ranch.

Within hours, their life and family business were in ashes. The fire destroyed eight barns and five houses, killing as many as 20 cows and leaving others injured, burned or traumatized in ways that affected not only their well-being, but their sale value and LaFranchi’s livelihood.

The rebuild began immediately. It continues today.

Plenty of blood, sweat and tears have gone into rebuilding the ranch’s infrastructure and cattle herd. But there’s been more material concerns, too.

“There’s no savings left, there’s no retirement left,” she said, “it’s just gone.”

Two-and-a-half years later, the LaFranchis have built new barns and homes, though there is no replacing the 80-year-old historic redwood structures that burned, LaFranchi said.

Outside insurance payments covered only a fraction of what was lost, and the LaFranchis are still waiting on PG&E to make them whole.

In the meantime, LaFranchi’s costs are staggering. The loss of pastureland, for instance, meant their feed costs went from around $100,000 before the fire to $800,000 the year after.

“What kind of business can absorb that?” she said.

When PG&E’s equipment started the Kincade fire, the utility was still in bankruptcy court — driven there by its liability for a number of devastating wildfires started by its equipment. Those fires included Sonoma County’s deadly 2017 firestorms. Fresh lawsuits against the company were legally blocked while that lengthy proceeding dragged on, meaning Kincade fire victims couldn’t file claims until PG&E emerged from bankruptcy court in July 2020.

The LaFranchis, and around 400 other victims of the Kincade fire with varying claim sizes, are represented by Gerald Singleton, a San Diego lawyer who has represented victims from various PG&E fires including the 2017 deadly firestorms that devastated Santa Rosa.

Civil cases were further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which slowed the court system down to a crawl in many cases, Singleton told The Press Democrat. A federal judge in San Francisco has now scheduled a civil trial over Kincade for November.

The utility could come to the table and begin to settle claims like the LaFranchis at any time, he noted. But the company’s focus at the moment is a criminal court in Sonoma County. “Their main focus is resolving the criminal case,” he said, “and then I would expect to see them try to resolve a huge number of the civil cases.”

That shift in focus, and the subsequent delay, frustrates Craig Enyart, whose home next to the LaFranchi ranch burned in the fire.

“I lost every single thing that I own,” Enyart said. His wife is an artist who had a studio on the property. She lost “every piece of work that she ever painted or created. It’s a lifetime of something that you never get over,” he said.

Enyart would like to see prosecutors use the negotiations as a tool to force PG&E to settle with the fire’s victims as well as to push the utility toward more serious and fast- paced safety improvements.

But after watching PG&E make several settlements with governments but not individuals, he worries that won’t be the case.

“Here is my fear of what would come out of this,” he said: “restitution payments and a fine that goes into the Sonoma County general fund. That’s not enough. That’s too easy.”

In a statement, PG&E said it was “committed to making it right and making it safe for our hometowns. We continue to actively engage with the claimants seeking damages from the 2019 Kincade fire.”

Judge Mark Urioste had scheduled a 15-day preliminary hearing to give Sonoma County prosecutors a chance to show they had sufficient evidence to prove PG&E guilty of crimes that include violating health and environmental statutes by being criminally negligent in causing the fire.

But after just two days of public testimony beginning Feb. 8, the two sides returned to court Feb. 22 and told the judge they were nearing a deal and wanted to further negotiate. Since then, the lawyers have asked Urioste for extensions twice. He has granted both but indicated he hopes to hear of a resolution soon or will return the case to trial.

Both the utility company and county prosecutors have stayed quiet about what deal may be in the works. The uncertainty worries utility reform advocates, who see chances for accountability slipping away.

Vanessa Vann evacuated herself and her then two-and-a-half year old son from a rental property on Chalk Hill Road. She was able to get a couple car loads of her belongings out of the house, but lost the rest when the flames burned through, she said. Her claim includes belongings and the emotional distress on herself and her son, who today lives with nightmare memories of fleeing flames, she said.

“He still worries about fires … ‘Are we going to have to run?’ ‘Will we have time to get his toys?’” She worries about damages to her and her son’s lungs from breathing wildfire smoke and whatever toxins it contained from burning construction material and other chemicals.

So much time has passed that Vann doesn’t know when and if she’ll be paid.

“I just can’t count on that money and think if and when I get anything it’ll be a nice surprise,” she said.

While disputing the criminal charges, PG&E has acknowledged its role in starting the Kincade fire.

Given that everyone knows the utility was responsible, Vann said she questioned the value in charging the company with more crimes.

“I’d be all for (a plea deal) if its going to help society, help this county and help mitigate fires,” she said. “As just payback it doesn’t do much.”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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