A $7.8 million settlement, reached by Plumas County with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in January, is now drawing criticism for both the amount it makes available for disaster recovery and the county’s announcement to the public.
The funds, which are part of a collective settlement to 10 public entities, are designed to pay for public and natural resource damages caused by the 2021 Dixie fire, California’s largest single fire. It burned nearly one million acres of mostly forested land and completely destroyed the communities of Indian Falls and Canyon Dam, downtown Greenville and nearly 100 cabins in Warner Valley.
Critics say the county’s $7.8 million settlement does not begin to address the needs and is a blow to the two-year effort to rebuild communities and fire-damaged infrastructure. Sue Weber, volunteer coordinator of the Dixie Fire Collaborative, said she was “flabbergasted” by the settlement amount.
“It’s a sucker punch that will have a massive effect on our ability to move forward,” she said.
Plumas County District 2 Supervisor Kevin Goss, who represents the area hardest hit by the Dixie fire, said he was hoping for $40 million to $50 million. “Personally, I would have fought the settlement,” he told The Plumas Sun.
Settlement “will in no way make the entities whole”
The Dixie fire, which started July 13, 2021, burned approximately 963,309 acres in Plumas, Lassen, Butte, Shasta, and Tehama counties. California fire officials found PG&E responsible for starting the blaze with faulty electrical equipment in the Feather River Canyon near Pulga. A total of 10 entities jointly filed civil charges against PG&E, including the five affected counties, along with the City of Susanville, Plumas District Hospital, Chester Public Utility District, Honey Lake Valley Recreation Authority, and Herlong Public Utility District.
Former Plumas County Counsel Gretchen Stuhr represented the Plumas and Lassen county public entities seeking civil legal damages that include staff and labor time, damages to pavement and roads, lost revenue and increased expenses along with public and natural resource damages.
An informational handout, released in April by Plumas County Administrative Officer Debra Lucero, listed approximately $5 million in future pavement repair projects. It valued the county-owned or leased properties destroyed by Dixie at $3.8 million.
Lucero’s handout also estimated $500,000 in reduced county property tax revenue, 1,611 net job losses and increased need for mental healthcare services.
In announcing the $24 million combined settlement on Jan. 17, Stuhr said Plumas County’s $7.8 million portion “will in no way make the entities whole following the devastation caused by the Dixie and Fly fires but will assist the County in its recovery.”
Weber and others coordinating efforts to rebuild after the Dixie fire had been assuming Plumas County would receive around $80 million in damages between the settlement and potential insurance payouts. In a criminal case entirely separate from the civil suit against PG&E, Plumas County District Attorney David Hollister and four other district attorneys won nearly $30 million to compensate local charities and organizations involved in mitigating the effects of the fire.
Plumas County’s share of $17 million has been distributed to nonprofit organizations that include the Plumas County Office of Education Foundation, Feather River College, the Dixie Fire Collaborative and the Maidu Summit Consortium.
The utility company, which has admitted responsibility for its role in starting the fire, put aside $1.1 billion to address the Dixie fire, according to a California Public Utilities Commission filing cited by Hollister.
Settlement announcement stuns rebuild organization
Weber, the Dixie Fire Collaborative coordinator, said she was stunned to learn in late August that the county had accepted “a mere $7.8 million.” And she blasted county officials for poor communication and “pathetic” involvement in the effort to recover from the fire and rebuild the communities destroyed by it.
At no time did Goss or anyone else from the county come to the Dixie Fire Collaborative to ask what needs should be included in the PG&E settlement, she told The Plumas Sun. “Not one county representative made even one call,” Weber said.
Lucero, the County Administrative Officer, said she was “shocked” that Weber didn’t know about the settlement amount.
“How would I know?” Weber responded.
The county’s Jan. 17 announcement, published Jan. 18, 2023 by Plumas News, explained the collective $24 million settlement but did not mention the amount of Plumas County’s share. Neither did Lucero’s informational handout, distributed at an April 25 Board of Supervisors meeting held in Greenville. The Board of Supervisors minutes for the Jan. 17 meeting do not mention Plumas County’s $7.8 million settlement agreement.
The first apparent public mention is in Hollister’s May 31 one-year update, which focused mainly on the criminal settlement, but briefly touches on the civil case as well. Hollister’s report details the amounts local organizations received as portions of the $17 million and how they have spent it as of April 2023.
Plumas County Board Chairman Greg Hagwood said the $7.8 million settlement has not been presented as a public conversation. “It has not been agendized as a topic” for the Board of Supervisors, he told The Plumas Sun. “I haven’t been presented with any of the final paperwork.”
Goss said the attorneys in the case instructed the supervisors to announce the collective $24 million settlement without specifying each individual claimant’s share. The $7.8 million is not what he wanted. “But by the time we penciled it out there were not a whole lot of options,” Goss said.
Lucero was on the Butte County Board of Supervisors after the 2018 Camp fire, which killed 85 people and devastated the town of Paradise. Butte County officials negotiated a $252 million settlement from PG&E for the company’s negligent role in causing the fire.
Asked about the difference between the Butte and Plumas county settlement amounts, Lucero said PG&E had much greater criminality in the Camp fire because of the deaths. “PG&E was looking down the barrel of a much different rifle with Butte County,” she said.
“PG&E was looking down the barrel of a much different rifle with Butte County.”Debra Lucero, Plumas County Administrative Officer
Plumas County was the last holdout in the 10-entity collective January settlement for damages in the Dixie fire, Lucero told The Plumas Sun. It was under a great deal of pressure from the others to settle, she said.
“I thought we would get at least $24 million. Obviously, we wanted $24 million, but we were told by our county counsel that wasn’t going to happen,” said Lucero.
Hollister, who was not involved in the county’s settlement with PG&E, said it could affect future negotiations for other public entities damaged by fires ignited by faulty utility company equipment. With Plumas County “setting the bar so low… we’ve now set a standard. Others are going to have a tough time getting anything,” Hollister said.
So far most of the funds appear to be unspent. In August the supervisors authorized $10,000 from the PG&E settlement for a clinic to spay and neuter feral cats, whose population has exploded since the Dixie fire. Lucero said they are looking at other expenditures but have not approved any.
She suggested putting at least $2 million into an investment fund as “one of the only ways to make money.”