PG&E creates $105 million housing fund to help wildfire victims

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A bankruptcy judge on Wednesday granted Pacific Gas and Electric Co. approval to create a $105 million housing assistance fund for those displaced by the 2017 Northern California wildfires and the 2018 Camp fire.

The details, such as how the money will be divvied up among the fire-ravaged communities, still have to be worked out by the company as it selects an independent entity to allocate the financial assistance.

The beleaguered San Francisco-based utility said in a statement the fund will target “those who are either uninsured or need assistance with alternative living expenses or other urgent needs.”

Although grateful for any help, Sonoma County officials said they don’t expect the money will stretch that far because of the colossal needs throughout the regions burned during the enormous infernos the past two years.

Investigators determined most of the 18 Northern California fires were triggered by PG&E power lines that sparked during windy conditions. However, the state’s largest utility was not blamed for the ferocious Tubbs fire in October 2017 that torched a wide swath of the Santa Rosa area, destroying over 5,600 homes and structures and killing 22 people.

“You can start doing the math and you can see it doesn’t go that far,” said Michael Gossman, director of Sonoma County’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

In January, PG&E sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors, citing its mounting liabilities — now up to $69 billion — related to the fires.

The 2017 blazes burned more than 5,300 homes here leading to about $7 billion in insurance claims, though the cost of rebuilding is much greater given that many residents were underinsured. That damage was in addition to the 654 homes lost in Napa County and the more than 380 destroyed in Mendocino County during the fires two years ago.

The assistance package also includes the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County, the most destructive and deadly blaze in state history killing 85 and leveling 18,800 structures. There were 9,349 home insurance claims filed for a total loss from that blaze.

PG&E said the administrator of its housing assistance fund “will give priority to those participants who are most in need, including those who are currently without adequate shelter.” Administrative fees will be capped at $5 million.

One local housing advocate said any money from the fund that’s allocated to the city or county should go to the most vulnerable, which likely would include the seven renters still living in a FEMA trailer at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. They are under a deadline of July 10 to leave.

“We’re talking to triage the need. It’s similar to do what you would do in an emergency room,” said Jennielynn Holmes of Catholic Charities.

The group Rebuilding Our Community has connected with 1,699 households needing help since the 2017 fires, and 919 of them are deemed the most vulnerable, Holmes said. They are primarily renters, fire victims whose homes were vastly underinsured and those who previously had been living with many family members in a cramped residence.

The major concern is that if the most vulnerable fire victims neither find permanent housing nor can move away, they will end up on the streets, she said.

“The people we are working with are one minute step away from falling into homelessness,” Holmes said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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