Plumas County officials are weighing how to spend $10 million in Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and insurance payments to the county for damages incurred by the 2021 Dixie fire, which burned nearly one million acres in California’s largest single fire.
At the county Board of Supervisors’ Oct. 17 meeting, County Administrative Officer Debra Lucero launched the discussion with a 30-page presentation that included the county’s direct costs and a list of unreimbursed expenses.
Allocating the $7.8m Dixie fire settlement
The Oct. 17 discussion focused on a $7.8 million payment the county accepted as a civil settlement from PG&E in January 2023.
Lucero identified a total of $6.8 million in county costs, which include roads damaged by the fire, water and sewer expenses for damaged buildings, and hiring an administrative assistant for three years to help with writing grants and manage fire-related documents. She also listed $602,000 to reimburse costs to her office that include the services of a contractor to collect insurance and write grants to address damage recovery.
The list does not include rebuilding the Greenville branch library, townhall or Greenville Sheriff’s substation, all totally destroyed by the fire. Valued at $2.8 million, the cost of rebuilding those three buildings is still being calculated, Lucero said.
Lucerno proposed setting aside $2 million as a match for grants and $2 million as investment funds. Following her overview presentation of the revenue received and the unreimbursed costs to the county, she suggested continuing the discussion to Nov. 7 and adopting a final resolution on Nov. 21.
Board Chairman Greg Hagwood immediately nixed adopting that timetable. “I’d rather err on the side of longer time than meet some specific deadline,” he said. He continued the discussion of spending the funds to Nov. 7.
Spending $6.8 million on the 17 items on her list would leave only $1 million to rebuild communities and advance citizen-led projects in Greenville and the three other areas hardest hit by the Dixie fire.
The Dixie Fire Collaborative, a largely volunteer organization, has previously asked that all of the $7.8 million in PG&E settlement funds be allocated to burn-scar communities, which include Indian Falls, Canyon Dam and Warner Valley as well as Greenville.
Everyone in Plumas County suffered from the Dixie fire, but they did not suffer equally, Sue Weber told the supervisors at their Sept. 29 budget meeting. “No community but Greenville lost a library. No where else are people gathering in a tent,” said Weber, a volunteer who coordinated the Dixie Fire Collaborative for over two years.
That discussion prompted Supervisor Jeff Engel to propose a resolution that the $7.8 million settlement fund be used exclusively for the burn scar area. The money should go directly to fire recovery and as leverage for additional funds for Dixie fire-related rebuild efforts, said Engel, who represents the East Quincy and Graeagle area.
His resolution proposal was not discussed at the Board’s Oct. 17 meeting.
Patrick Joseph, newly hired coordinator of the Dixie Fire Collaborative, called Lucero’s presentation “a great start.”
“Being able to just talk openly about the information that exists, and the clarity—the precision of this information—will facilitate planning the use of the county funds,” Joseph said.
Additional Dixie-fire related funds
In addition to the $7.8 million PG&E civil settlement, Plumas County received $5 million from the California Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That money was spent on the county’s disaster response during the three months when county agencies were actually fighting the Dixie fire.
The county is also negotiating a settlement in its $2.2 million insurance claim for the loss of the three buildings and damages to two department of public works centers in Greenville.
Another source of revenue to Plumas County is through its 2021 Wildfires Long-Term Recovery Plan. Grant awards of $28.1 million will fund 17 specific projects that include improving water main lines in Greenville, business assistance, broadband strategic planning and designing the construction of a neighborhood resilience center for Greenville. The county has applied for another $5.9 million in grants, Lucero said.
DA Hollister wins $17 million for county organizations
In a criminal case entirely separate from the county’s 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. Some of these organizations have already allocated most of their funds to support fire victims and community efforts to rebuild. Others are still deciding how to spend their funds.
The Office of Education met at noon Oct. 24 to weigh requests for spending the $2 million it received. Among them are using the funds exclusively on schools and students in Indian Valley.
PG&E, 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.
PG&E civil settlement timeline unclear
Uncertainty about when the Plumas County supervisors accepted the $7.8 million settlement from PG&E continues to cloud the discussion about how to spend it. The acceptance decision does not appear on either the supervisors’ agendas or their minutes for 2023.
A Jan. 17 press release, published Jan. 18, 2023 by Plumas News, explained the collective $24 million settlement to 10 public entities in Lassen and Plumas counties. It 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.
When The Plumas Sun asked Oct. 17 where the Board’s settlement agreement is recorded publicly, Interim County Counsel Sara James said the county does not have the date. She cited “a variety of complications when things are taken in closed session.” Often the action taken “is not a full action,” James said. Announcing the action “would not be required until the action is actually completed,” she added.
James was not the county counsel in January. The position was held by Gretchen Stuhr, who resigned in July.
At the Oct. 17 meeting Hagwood committed to responding “accurately and timely” to the question of when the Board accepted the $7.8 million PG&E settlement.