Sonoma County leaders pressed to dedicate PG&E wildfire settlement money to fire safety work
At her sister’s house in Sonoma Valley, Susan Gorin, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, was puzzling over a spreadsheet in an attempt to track down more than two dozen homeowners whose houses had been destroyed by the Glass fire that broke out Sept. 27 in Napa County and spread west to Santa Rosa.
“It’s hard. … It’s a really hard day,” said Gorin, who was working to connect neighbors and other county residents with the resources they would need to begin recovering from the latest siege of wildfire.
That was Wednesday, days before Gorin and her fellow supervisors were scheduled to have their own reckoning over county resources, facing mounting public pressure to dedicate the bulk of remaining PG&E settlement funds from the 2017 firestorm ― about $120 million ― to bolster fire prevention in the area.
Already, county supervisors have tapped about a sixth of the $149 million settlement to help fill a budget deficit.
Local fire survivors, whose numbers have swelled in repeated disasters since 2017, are pushing to ensure the remaining funds are dedicated more clearly to addressing fire prevention and protection work in the region.
Since that terrifying span of days in 2017, when 24 people died in Sonoma County and more than 5,300 homes burned, little has been done on the landscape to reduce fire risk, survivors say. Two more rounds of catastrophic wildfire ― in 2019 and this year ― have illustrated their point, they say. Much more needs to be done.
“We are under duress now. We are under duress from fire,” said Barry Hirsch, a neighborhood block captain who signed an open letter to Sonoma County leaders urging that more be done with fire prevention, including with the PG&E money
“It’s time to build a fire safe community,” the Sept. 27 advertisement read, in big block letters.
Without an aggressive and comprehensive approach to fire safety, wildfire threatens to “change the complexion of our community,” Hirsch said.
Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting stands to be the most substantial discussion of PG&E settlement dollars since board members agreed Sept. 9 to use $26.8 million of the settlement to avert layoffs and help balance the county’s coronavirus-strained budget.
The county, joined by Santa Rosa and other local governments across Northern California, sued PG&E over damages inflicted by devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018, most of which were caused by failed electrical equipment owned and operated by the utility giant. Of the $1 billion settlement, about a quarter went to Sonoma County and Santa Rosa. The county’s share after attorneys fees was $149 million and the city’s was about $95 million.
But even that windfall is not enough to cover public costs resulting from the disaster, officials say, raising the specter of hard choices and looming compromises over how the money is spent.
The county suffered an estimated $111 million in road and public property damage in the 2017 fires. Officials projected it would lose about $70 million in long-term property tax revenue and the county accrued about $16 million in staff expenses, while spending $26.8 million on the fire response out of pocket. The state has backfilled most of those property tax losses to date, amounting to about $9 million.
Since then, the county has spent tens of millions of dollars responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and other disasters, including last year’s record-breaking Kincade fire. Debris removal from properties destroyed in the Walbridge and Meyers fires in northwestern Sonoma County has only just begun, and the Glass fire has added at least $18 million in repairs to county property, including an $8 million toll for the Los Guilicos campus, $6 million in road fixes and $1 million in damage to county parkland.
Some fire survivors, including Will Abrams, who lost his Riebli Road home in the Tubbs fire, don’t begrudge county spending on coronavirus crisis. They see the pandemic as a threat to the community all the same.
“I want people to be healthy,” said Abrams, a vocal advocate for fire survivors in the protracted PG&E bankruptcy case. “If there are things we can do around the response to COVID, why would I want to prevent progress there?”
Others, though, see the PG&E settlement money as a special fund that should be dedicated to preventing another wildfire tragedy.
“Our county would not have this funding if it were not for the fires that took lives, destroyed our homes, and devastated our properties,” survivors wrote in their open letter to county leaders. “We have rebuilt our homes to be fire safe. Now let us use these funds to make our whole county fire safe.”