The Camp Fire ignited on November 8th, 2018, and burned 153,336 acres in Butte County. It remains the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in recorded California history. The fire killed 85 civilians, destroyed 18,804 structures, and wiped out nearly all of the towns of Paradise and Concow. Twelve civilians and 5 firefighters also suffered injuries from the blaze. As many as 5,596 firefighters were involved in the containment effort at its peak.
The fire was declared 100% contained on November 25th, 2018. On May 15th, 2019, CAL Fire announced that PG&E electrical transmission lines caused the fire. The press release identified two ignition sites. The first fire was sparked by a nearly 100-year-old electrical transmission line. The second ignited as a result of vegetation contact with electrical distribution lines. With the help of strong winds, low humidity, and warm temperatures, the first fire quickly overtook the second and spread rapidly. PG&E was cited for several violations related to the fire’s ignition and faced numerous legal and financial repercussions for its negligent role in the Camp Fire.
A statute of limitations is the deadline for filing a lawsuit. According to the California Judicial Branch, the statute of limitations for the following legal disputes in California are:
Personal injury: Two years from the injury. If the injury was not discovered right away, then it is 1 year from the date the injury was discovered.
Property damage: Three years from the date the damage occurred.
The first of two fires that would later merge and become called the Camp Fire ignited at approximately 6:33 am on November 8th near Pulga in Butte County. The second fire ignited approximately 30 minutes later near the intersection of Concow Road and Rim Road.
Later in the day on November 8th, PG&E submitted a Safety Incident Report, stating that a transmission line near the first fire’s ignition had experienced an outage approximately 15 minutes before the fire was reported. A Supplemental Notice submitted on December 11th shared more details of the day’s events, including that a PG&E employee later observed downed power lines and poles near the second fire’s ignition site. CAL Fire collected equipment from the sites as part of its investigation into the Camp Fire.
Numerous civil lawsuits were filed against PG&E soon after the Camp Fire, including a lawsuit filed just 5 days after the fire sparked on behalf of two dozen Paradise residents. By January 11th, 2019, PG&E said it was aware of approximately 50 lawsuits on behalf of at least 2,000 plaintiffs related to the Camp Fire. PG&E summarized the accusations, saying, “The plaintiffs
principally assert that PG&E’s alleged failure to maintain and repair its distribution and transmission lines and failure to properly maintain the vegetation surrounding such lines were the causes of the Camp Fire.”
Before any of these claims could move forward in court, PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on January 29th, 2019, estimating their liabilities to be around $30 billion at the time. The bankruptcy automatically put a stay (or pause) on the lawsuits, but all claims had to be resolved as part of the bankruptcy proceedings. Doing this in a timely manner was important because PG&E had to emerge from bankruptcy by June 30th, 2020 in order to be eligible to join California’s newly formed Wildfire Fund. The fund helps shield utility companies from bankruptcy by providing financial insurance for wildfire damages that exceed $1 billion.
On May 15th, 2019, CAL Fire released its investigative report on the Camp Fire, in which it determined that PG&E equipment caused the fire. The report was forwarded to the Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey to decide if and what criminal charges would be brought against the utility company. Despite whether the company would be found negligent, it was still liable for damages from the fire. An investigation into its conduct would determine which claims were valid and would be considered by the CPUC, which would decide if costs could be passed onto ratepayers.
While that was being determined, Pacific Gas & Electric reached a $1 billion settlement with 18 public entities impacted by the 2015 Butte, 2017 North Bay, and Camp fires. The town of Paradise received $270 million, $252 million went to Butte County, and $47.5 million was allotted to Paradise Recreation and Parks District. The utility company also reached an $11 billion settlement with insurance companies to cover claims from the 2017 North Bay Fires and the Camp Fire.
Then, on November 8th, 2019, the California Safety and Enforcement Division released its investigative report on the Camp Fire. The report cited 12 violations of the Commission’s General Order and the California Public Utilities Code.
The violations included:
“PG&E failed to maintain the C-hook supporting the transposition jumper on the Incident Tower :27/222 for its intended use and regard being given to the conditions under which it was to be operated GO 95, Rule 31.1.
PG&E failed to follow its procedures by failing to document the factors and reasons that led to the delay in the repair work on the Incident Tower GO 165, Section IV.
PG&E failed to maintain an effective inspection and maintenance program to identify and correct hazardous conditions on its transmission lines in order to furnish and maintain service and facilities, as are necessary to promote the safety and health of its patrons and the public PU Code Section 451.”
The California Public Utilities Commission subsequently imposed $2.137 billion in penalties against PG&E for violations from the 2017 North Bay Fires and the Camp Fire. The amount included $1.823 billion in disallowances for wildfire-related expenditures, meaning PG&E was barred from recovering these costs from ratepayers. $114 million went to System Enhancement Initiatives and corrective actions to further protect public safety, and the remaining $200 million went towards a fine.
Criminal charges would be brought by Butte County against PG&E, and on June 16th, 2020, the utility company pled guilty to 1 count of unlawfully starting a fire and 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The court fined PG&E the maximum amount of $4 million ($3.5 million in penalties and $500,000 to reimburse Butte County for the cost of the investigation). The court also ordered PG&E to pay billions of dollars in settlement money to compensate victims, their families, and Butte County agencies.
PG&E emerged from bankruptcy weeks later on July 1st, 2020, and established the Fire Victim Trust to pay these settlements, and claims from 23 other 2015 and 2017 fires, as part of the proceedings agreements. The $13.5 billion trust would be funded half in cash and half in PG&E stock. The company made an initial cash deposit of $5.4 billion and assigned nearly 477 million shares of PG&E stock to the fund, with plans to contribute more in cash over time.
Funding the trust in stock was highly controversial, in part because of the uncertainty and volatility that comes with the stock market. Claimants were and continue to be wary of PG&E stock being devalued if its reputation and finances plummet further. Many also are disturbed that the company that recklessly destroyed their homes, families, and lives now must do well on the market for victims to be paid what they are owed.
In November 2020, the trust began providing claimants who had submitted the necessary documents a preliminary payment of up to $25,000. The trust made its first round of pro-rata payments on March 15th, 2021, which was 30% of the total claim amount. Months later, many claimants said they still hadn’t received any payment from the trust. As of June 2023, no claimant has received more than 60% of their claim.
On September 29th, 2022, Governor Newsom signed bills that made victims’ settlement payments state tax-free. The fires included the 2015 Butte Fire, 2017 North Bay Fires, 2017 Thomas Fire, 2018 Woolsey Fire, and 2018 Camp Fire. Personal and corporate taxpayers are both covered under these bills.
On the same day, the Fire Victim Trust announced a $117 million settlement with ex-PG&E executives to pay the majority of claims made by federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service. As part of PG&E’s Chapter 11 Reorganization, the company gave the FVT the right to pursue certain claims held by PG&E, including claims against the company’s former directors and officers. The settlement amount was covered by liability insurance secured by the utility and was pursued so that money did not have to be taken from the Fire Victim Trust. Trustee Cathy Yanni said she hoped the settlement would encourage the current board and new leadership to prioritize safety.