As many as 100,000 Californians are eligible to receive payments for the damages they suffered from a series of devastating wildfires over the last several years. But tens of thousands of them have not sought compensation.
They face a Monday deadline to file claims against Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility blamed for many of the fires and required to cover a wide range of wildfire-related losses as part of its bankruptcy plan.
Concerned that as many as 70,000 victims may miss out on payments, attorneys filed court papers Friday to alert the bankruptcy judge that wildfire survivors — many still traumatized and struggling to get back on their feet — aren't aware of their rights to file a claim.
"People really are overwhelmed and don't understand what they need to do," said Cecily Dumas, an attorney for the Official Committee of Tort Claimants, a group appointed by the court to represent all wildfire victims in the bankruptcy.
"Renters, lower-income people were simply too exhausted by their day-to-day circumstances to deal with it," she said.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in January as it faced billions of dollars of damages from wildfires that have killed scores of people over the past couple of years and destroyed thousands of homes. The investor-owned energy company set aside $8.4 billion for payouts to wildfire victims and mailed 6.2 million claim forms to possible victims, calling attention to the process through websites, email, social media, and radio and television ads.
However, many victims said in court papers supporting a deadline extension that the legal notice didn't reach them because they have been displaced, or if they did receive it they mistook it as a scam.
Some said they thought they couldn't pursue a claim because PG&E is bankrupt, or that they weren't eligible to make a claim since they already received money from their insurance company.
Others thought they couldn't make a claim without a lawyer.
"I thought I wasn't a victim because I got out alive," said Elizabeth Davis, 91, who lost her mobile home in a wildfire that essentially wiped out the town of Paradise nearly a year ago. "I never received any information that PG&E has billions of dollars available. I thought I was not qualified to make a claim."
A man who said his house in Paradise was destroyed by fire three months after he bought it said he learned through social media that he could recover money from PG&E for his losses. Ryan Mooney said he believes there are countless people like him who don't know they can file claims "or what they will lose if they don't."
Mooney said he and his wife and his aunt and uncle who lived close by barely escaped the fire after they woke up to the smell of smoke and saw a wall of flames coming over a canyon.
"All of us are still grappling with the trauma to this day," he said. "We are constantly planning fire escape routes and putting together emergency kits. When there is smoke outside, we get nervous."
PG&E has separately agreed to pay more than $11 billion to insurance companies to compensate for claims they have already paid out to wildfire victims.
Dumas said wildfire survivors can additionally claim for hardships such as lost wages, lost business and emotional distress. Renters can seek to recover the cost of finding alternate housing.
Dumas wasn't certain a deadline extension will lead to more people making claims. However, she said she felt a moral obligation to inform the judge so he can grasp the scope of the problem.
Among people who knew about the deadline, some wrestled with whether to pursue it.
"It took a while for me to decide if it was the right thing to do," said Pam Beauchamp, who lost her house in the wildfire in Paradise.
Beauchamp said she hesitated to ask for a payout because she reasoned the wildfire was a natural disaster and that she considered herself lucky to buy a house in the nearby city of Chico less than a month after the fire.
But when investigators concluded that PG&E equipment sparked the wildfire, she said she felt more comfortable claiming for her losses.
"Nothing is going to replace what I had in that house or make that day better," Beauchamp said. "I am forever changed. And while money is not going to bring back the community I knew, it feels a little bit like even Stevens."