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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. temporarily stopped billing thousands of Northern California customers affected by the October wildfires, frustrating some displaced residents who are now bracing for hefty charges when their power bills come due after months of accumulating.

PG&E describes the move as part of a standard policy to ensure it doesn’t send bills to the owners of homes and businesses destroyed by a natural disaster.

However, the decision has also delayed bills to fire victims who restarted their utility service after relocating to new or temporary homes in the area. The billing policy is tied to an individual’s account, not a specific address, according to PG&E.

Some Sonoma County fire victims said they didn’t receive any advance notice from PG&E about the company’s decision to temporarily suspend their bills. Now anticipating charges possibly hundreds of dollars higher than normal, they’re wishing they could have just kept paying monthly all along.

“When I discovered that I hadn’t gotten a bill in three months, I was dumbfounded as to why,” said Chris Kuhn, whose longtime Larkfield home was destroyed in the fires. “And then I started getting a little pissed off, because it’s certainly not doing me any favors.”

About 6,500 customers, most of them in Sonoma County, have their bills suspended because they lost a home or business as a result of the October fires, according to PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo.

Many more customers’ bills were put on hold at first, but PG&E began billing many of them again in November as the company started validating those whose properties weren’t destroyed, Paulo said. The company is still calculating bills for a couple hundred customers near burned areas whose properties remain intact.

“We really do apologize for the inconvenience,” Paulo said. “We know that this has an impact on a number of customers by delaying the bills, but it’s really the best way that we can ensure that a customer who lost their home or business doesn’t receive a bill after that property was destroyed.”

PG&E is in the process of calculating and sending out bills to fire victims who get all their gas and electricity from the company, according to Paulo. Customers who use multiple sources will take longer to have their next bills calculated, she said.

Paulo couldn’t estimate when all bills in the region would no longer be suspended due to the fires.

But if a customer’s next bill is more than $500, PG&E is reaching out to discuss payment plans and other options, she said.

At first, Kuhn said he didn’t even notice he received no PG&E bills after starting service at a temporary Santa Rosa rental Nov. 1. Then, after his wife asked him about it, he checked and saw the last bill they paid was the one they had outstanding at the time of the fires.

Kuhn found out about the delay for fire victims when he called PG&E, but he still doesn’t have any certainty about how much he should budget for or when the new bill will arrive.

“I’m not quibbling about owing the money, because we got the service,” Kuhn said. “But why wouldn’t I pay for it on the monthly basis rather than cough up that money at some point down the road? It just seems ludicrous.”

One of his former neighbors, Janine Scott, encountered a similar situation when she moved to a Novato rental following the loss of her Larkfield home. She said she called PG&E a few times and “kind of got the runaround” about her account, and she’s now estimating a bill exceeding $500 — whenever it comes.

“I think most of us, as homeowners, we just want to pay our bills,” Scott said. “It’s like a dangling precipice: You got this thing hanging there that you got to take care of. It’s a threat. You don’t know how far out on that thing you should go — how many people I should bother about this bill. Am I going to get a bill or did they just forget about me?”

Customers who receive delayed bills will see a message from PG&E explaining its efforts to assess the fire’s impacts on customers, acknowledging the delay and noting the company’s flexibility with payment options, Paulo said.

“We’re going to work with anybody who’s had a bill that’s been held and is receiving a bill for multiple billing periods that is higher than they were expecting,” she said.

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