‘Pawns in this big game’: Frustration builds as 2017 North Bay fire victims wait for compensation
Daniella Stanghellini was determined to get her grandmother back home as fast as possible after the 2017 Tubbs Fire tore through the Orchard, a 55-and-older mobile home community in Santa Rosa where her grandmother had lived for 34 years.
Her grandmother, Eleanor Miller, struggled in temporary housing. Without her longtime friends and neighbors or any trappings of her former life, she became a shut-in.
“In the beginning, she just wanted to go home, that was it, so we got her home whatever it took,” Stanghellini said, tearing up at the memory.
Stanghellini stretched to pay for the replacement home where Miller lives now.
“At the time, she was 93,” Stanghellini said. “It’s a life clock, trying to get her home before she dies. That’s what I was fighting. I just wanted her to be home and comfortable before she goes.”
Today, Stanghellini is still fighting. Now her battle is to get Miller, now 98, paid from the Fire Victim Trust, which was established in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 2020 to compensate victims of wildfires from 2015 to 2018 caused by utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
The fund covers damages for the victims of deadly wildfires, including the Nuns and Atlas fires in 2017 and the Camp Fire that devastated the town of Paradise and killed 85 people in 2018. Tubbs Fire victims are also covered by the fund, though Cal Fire investigators said that fire did not start from PG&E equipment.
Victims’ attorneys and the utility agreed to a $13.5 billion sum. But victims, under considerable pressure, agreed to accept half that sum in stock even as the share price was dropping.
Today, people like Miller remain dependent on PG&E’s stock rising considerably to be made whole.
More than two years after the trust was established, Miller has received less than 40% of what is owed to her. She doesn’t know when she’ll see the rest.
“Nobody tells us anything,” Stanghellini said. “It's me stalking my lawyer. It’s my lawyer stalking them to try to get her paid out.”
In Miller’s case, insurance only covered a small portion of her burned home. Stanghellini is counting on trust funds to pay herself back for the new mobile home, pay for additional modifications to accommodate Miller’s age and maybe bring in a caregiver.
“This money, it's about protecting her life,” Stanghellini said.
Five years after the fire, tens of thousands of North Bay and Paradise residents remain in brutal limbo, unable to pick up their lives from flames that cost them homes, livelihoods and loved ones. There are many reasons the tragedy lingers in these communities, but the long wait for compensation for physical and emotional losses from the utility compounds the injury.
The trust’s rollout has been plagued with questions about administrative spending and transparency, leaving victims to fear they’ve been left with the short end of the stick. Meanwhile, the trust’s overhead, including payments to law firms, public relations firms and lobbyists, topped $132 million by the end of 2021.
The trust employs roughly 300 people to assess and process claims, according to trust administrator Cathy Yanni.
After a long wait, the trust is making payouts. To date, 82% of the people who have filed a claim, roughly 57,000 people, have received a “determination notice” stating the amount the trust intends to offer them. The goal, Yanni said, is to get to 90% by the end of the year.
In terms of money out the door, more than $5 billion in partial payments have been distributed to 48,000 of the 70,000 claimants, according to the trust’s most recent data.
Some of those payments were small amounts to get victims through immediate hardships. No one has received more than 45% of what the trust has determined they’re owed.
Yanni, who has led the trust since July, defends its performance and promised a new focus on outreach. Yanni is a longtime mediator who has worked on past mass tort settlements.