PG&E proposes court order for CEO, board to tour town destroyed by wildfire

FILE PHOTO: A statue stands in front of a home destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo

(Reuters) – PG&E Corp on Monday submitted a proposed order to a U.S. District Court judge that would require the power provider’s chief executive and board to visit the California town of Paradise by July 15, to see the destruction caused by a wildfire in November that may be linked to the company’s equipment.

The order, agreed to by the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Probation Officer, awaits U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup’s signature.

He is also overseeing PG&E’s probation stemming from a felony conviction over a deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline in San Bruno, California, that destroyed a neighborhood and killed eight people.

The judge last week called for PG&E officials to tour Paradise town. November’s Camp Fire leveled the town and killed more than 80 people, marking the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in California’s modern history.

The Camp Fire also pushed San Francisco-based PG&E to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January in the expectation of, potentially, billions of dollars in liabilities. PG&E has said it expects its equipment may be found to have sparked the blaze.

The proposed order also requires PG&E’s chief executive and board to visit San Bruno to meet with victims of the 2010 explosion there as well as city officials and firefighters.

(Reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco and Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Editing by Rashmi Aich)

California utility PG&E vows more power shutdowns to prevent wildfire

FILE PHOTO: A neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire is seen in Paradise, California, U.S., November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California utility PG&E Corp plans to increase the controversial practice of shutting off the power to communities at risk of wildfire when dangerous conditions such as high winds and dry heat are present.

In a report to state regulators, PG&E said it would also remove 375,000 trees near electricity lines, trim vegetation over 2,500 square miles (6,475 square km) and conduct thousands of inspections to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires.

FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

PG&E is under intense scrutiny for its role in sparking more than a dozen wildfires over the past two years. It filed bankruptcy last month, citing anticipated liabilities, including the possibility its equipment set off November’s deadly Camp Fire, which destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise and killed 86 people.

The San Francisco-based utility, which serves 16 million customers, said it would increase nearly tenfold its efforts to turn off the power to communities threatened by wildfire, increasing the number of households and businesses potentially affected by fire-prevention blackouts in 2019 to 5.4 million.

Such shutoffs were also used last year to keep live electricity in the lines from setting off a fire when high winds and heat hit extreme levels and nearby brush or trees could be ignited.

Mark Toney, who directs the utility consumer advocacy group the Utility Reform Network (TURN), said shutting off power would harm vulnerable people, including those who rely on electricity to power life-saving medical equipment.

“The fact that there is such a dramatic expansion of power shutoffs as a strategy to stop wildfires is a sign of PG&E’s failure and mismanagement when it comes to trimming the trees and taking care of the grid,” he said.

PG&E spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said the company would only turn off the power to a community as a last resort to keep people safe.

“We understand and appreciate that turning off the power affects the operation of critical facilities, communications systems and much more,” she said.

The company is also on probation in relation to a criminal conviction in the deadly 2010 explosion of one of its natural gas lines in the city of San Bruno near San Francisco.

The judge, in that case, said he would consider the company’s wildfire plan in deciding whether PG&E should do more to prevent wildfire.

California law requires all investor-owned utilities to file wildfire mitigation plans annually.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)

PG&E, owner of biggest U.S. power utility, files for bankruptcy

FILE PHOTO: PG&E crew work on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

By Subrat Patnaik

(Reuters) – Power provider PG&E Corp filed for voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Tuesday, succumbing to liabilities stemming from wildfires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018.

The owner of the biggest U.S. power utility has filed a motion seeking court approval for a $5.5 billion debtor-in-possession financing, it said in a statement.

PG&E listed assets of $71.39 billion and liabilities of $51.69 billion, in a court document filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California.

“Throughout this process, we are fully committed to enhancing our wildfire safety efforts, as well as helping restoration and rebuilding efforts across the communities impacted by the devastating Northern California wildfires,” PG&E interim Chief Executive Officer John Simon said.

The company said it intends to pay suppliers in full under normal terms for goods and services provided on or after the date of the Chapter 11 filing.

Separately, PG&E shareholder BlueMountain Capital Management LLC said it was “deeply disappointed” that the company’s board ignored calls from multiple parties to abandon its “reckless and irresponsible plan to file for bankruptcy.”

The investment firm said it would propose a slate of board directors no later than Feb. 21, and urged all PG&E stakeholders to support change at the company.

PG&E, which had a debt burden of more than $18 billion, said earlier this month it would need to pursue a court-supervised reorganization in the aftermath of the blazes, including November’s so-called Camp Fire.

The Camp Fire broke out on the morning of Nov. 8 near the mountain community of Paradise, sweeping through the town and killing at least 86 people, in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.

Reinsurance company Munich Re termed the Camp Fire as the world’s most expensive natural disaster of 2018 and earlier this month pegged the overall losses from it at $16.5 billion.

PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy once before in 2001, warned in November it could face “significant liability” in excess of its insurance coverage if its equipment was found to have caused the Camp Fire and other destructive wildfires.

Earlier this month, a state fire agency said PG&E equipment was not to blame for a 2017 wildfire in California’s wine country, but the company faces dozens of lawsuits from owners of homes and businesses that burned during that and other 2017 fires.

The San Francisco-based company provides electricity and natural gas to more than six million customers in Northern California. Last year, lawmakers gave it permission to raise rates to cover wildfire losses from 2017. But elected officials this month showed little appetite for new rate hikes or other maneuvers to prevent a bankruptcy filing.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru and Jim Christie in San Francisco; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier and Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

Insurance losses for California wildfires top $11.4 billion

Firefighters battle a wildfire near Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Sharon Bernstein and Suzanne Barlyn

SACRAMENTO, Calif./NEW YORK (Reuters) – The deadliest and most destructive California wildfires in a century caused insurers more than $11.4 billion in losses, the state’s insurance regulator said Monday.

The total amount of insured losses for the November Camp Fire, which destroyed most of the town of Paradise in northern California, jumped 25 percent since December, California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara told reporters during a media event.

More than 13,000 insured homes and businesses were destroyed out of more than 46,000 claims reported by insurers.

The figures are “unprecedented,” Lara said. “These are massive numbers for us.” Lara said.

The November wildfires, combined with other blazes in the state drove total 2018 insured losses to $12.4 billion.

A total of 89 people died in the Camp Fire and thousands were left homeless.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California and Suzanne Barlyn in New York; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Insurance claims for latest California wildfires top $9 billion

FILE PHOTO: A van marked by search crews is seen in the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Insurance claims from the recent spate of California wildfires, including one ranked as the most deadly and destructive in state history, have topped $9 billion and are expected to grow, the state insurance commissioner reported on Wednesday.

The claims, so far, fall short of the record $12 billion in wildfire-related insured losses sustained in California in 2017, most of that from more than a dozen blazes that swept a large swath of wine country north of San Francisco Bay, killing 46 people.

This year, the Camp Fire that erupted on Nov. 8 has accounted for the bulk of the claims, just over $7 billion of the total. The wind-driven blaze quickly incinerated most of the Sierra foothills town of Paradise, about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco, destroying 18,500 homes and businesses and killing 86 people.

The casualty toll stands as the greatest loss of life from a single wildfire on record in California and the highest from any U.S. wildfire during the past century.

A pair of smaller blazes that broke out at about the same time in Southern California, the Woolsey and Hill fires, killed three people and destroyed some 1,500 structures and forced the evacuation of thousands in the Malibu area west of Los Angeles.

The insurance commissioner put preliminary insurance claims from those two fires combined at more than $2 billion, bringing the total for all three of last month’s blazes to $9.05 billion.

The tally reflects losses for residential and commercial coverage, as well as for motor vehicles, agriculture, machinery and other assets, the Insurance Department said.

“The devastating wildfires of 2018 were the deadliest and most destructive wildfire catastrophes in California’s history,” Commissioner Dave Jones said in a statement.

The numbers released on Wednesday stem from almost 40,000 separate claims, more than a fourth of which represent total losses. Most of those, 10,564, were for personal residential property, the commissioner said.

But the figures do not include billions of dollars in potential losses faced by Pacific Gas Electric Company in the event the utility’s electrical equipment is ultimately found to have caused the Camp Fire. PG&E Corp has said its liability could exceed its insurance coverage if that happens.

Citigroup Inc analysts have projected the company’s potential exposure from the blaze could exceed $15 billion.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)

Number of people believed missing in California wildfire drops to three

FILE PHOTO: Stanley Miniszewski Sr. uses a burnt golf club to look for a pair of expensive dentures in the remains of his RV after returning for the first time since the Camp Fire forced him to evacuate as his friend Merrill Jackson looks on at Pine Ridge Park in Paradise, California, U.S. November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

(Reuters) – The number of people unaccounted for in California’s deadliest wildfire dropped to just three, down from a high of more than 1,200, officials said late on Monday.

The death toll from the so-called Camp Fire remains at 85, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said.

The fire started in November 8 and was fully contained by November 25. It all but obliterated the mountain community of Paradise, home to more than 27,000 people about 175 miles north of San Francisco.

FILE PHOTO: Firefighters move debris while recovering human remains from a trailer home destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

FILE PHOTO: Firefighters move debris while recovering human remains from a trailer home destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Of the dead, 50 have positively identified and 31 have been tentatively identified, officials said.

No human remains have been found since early December, but the search will continue, officials said.

The cause of the fire is still being investigated. The electricity utility PG&E Corp reported equipment problems near the origin of the fire around the time it began.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Parts of ravaged Paradise open for first time since California wildfire

FILE PHOTO: Deer are seen on a property damaged by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

By Saif Tawfeeq

PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) – Thousands of Paradise residents who fled a monster blaze a month ago were allowed on Wednesday to return to some neighborhoods in the Northern California city nearly obliterated by one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history.

Tim Moniz, a rice farmer, and welder in his 50s, personally surveyed the remains of his Paradise property for the first time since the fire, confirming his suspicions that his house was gone. He and his wife only recently paid off the mortgage.

“It seems unfair that some houses make it and yours don’t,” Moniz said. “I just had to get back up and see it and try to salvage something.”

Paradise residents who return to their ravaged homes will face a daunting task to resume normal life, with some likely to encounter months or even years of work to obtain compensation for their losses and rebuild.

Authorities hurriedly evacuated some 50,000 people in Paradise and neighboring towns when the Camp Fire erupted on Nov. 8. The fire killed at least 85 people with nearly a dozen still unaccounted for. It also destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in the wooded, foothill communities.

Evacuation orders were previously lifted in areas outside Paradise, but Wednesday marked the first day officials opened parts of the city itself in the midst of the fire’s scorched wasteland of 153,000 acres (61,900 hectares).

REBUILDING A RESHAPED TOWN

Moniz said he is among those planning to rebuild, rather than move away.

But the fire’s devastation will reshape the town and – at least initially – lower its population, Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said by telephone.

“All my friends who are in their 80s, they’re just not going to go through this process of rebuilding,” Jones said, adding she believes three-quarters of Paradise residents will rebuild.

Some residents may be able to salvage jewelry or even stuff such as intact tool boxes from the rubble of their houses, said Jones, who lost her own home in the fire.

Some residents rumbled back into town in recreational vehicles, apparently planning to spend the night, Paradise Police Chief Eric Reinbold said by phone.

Authorities said they will let some residents stay overnight on their properties, but advise against it because electricity, gas and other services were not available.

Paradise’s skyline is dotted with 30 large cranes that crews are using to remove debris, said city spokesman Matt Gates.

Health and safety specialists are sweeping through Paradise to remove batteries, propane tanks, household chemicals and other environmental hazards in the aftermath of the fire, Gates said. Residents entering the re-opened areas of town were offered gear to protect themselves from hazardous materials, Reinbold said.

Full removal of debris could take nine months, Jones said.

(Reporting by Saif Tawfeeq; Additional reporting and writing by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)

Search for remains in California’s deadliest wildfire officially ends

FILE PHOTO: A man looks at a map of the Camp Fire at a Red Cross shelter in Chico, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

By Lee van der Voo

CHICO, Calif. (Reuters) – Three weeks after flames incinerated most of a Northern California town in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century, the search for more human remains has officially ended with at least 88 people confirmed dead and nearly 200 still listed as missing.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said he was optimistic that some who remain unaccounted for will turn up alive, but he also left open the possibility that “bones or bone fragments” of additional victims could turn up as evacuation zones are reopened to civilians.

With the fire reduced to embers, the National Weather Service on Thursday issued a flash-flood warning for the burn zone as showers and thunderstorms heightened the risk of heavy runoff in areas stripped of vegetation by the fire.

At a news conference on Wednesday night, Honea said search and recovery teams had finished combing through the ruins of approximately 18,000 homes and other buildings leveled by the Camp Fire, which ranks as the most destructive in state history.

The bulk of the devastation occurred in and around the hamlet of Paradise, a town once home to nearly 27,000 people, many of them retirees, in the Sierra foothills about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco.

More than 1,000 personnel, including cadaver dog teams, forensic anthropologists, coroners and National Guard troops from five states, took part in the grim effort.

“I believe that we have done our due diligence with regard to searching for human remains. My sincere hope is that no additional human remains will be located,” Honea told reporters in the nearby town of Chico.

Asked directly whether authorities had ceased actively searching burned structures, the sheriff answered yes.

The current death toll of 88 already stands as the greatest loss of life on record from a single wildfire in California and the most from a wildfire anywhere in the United States dating back to Minnesota’s 1918 Cloquet Fire, which killed as many as 1,000 people. The Camp Fire also exceeds the 87 lives lost in the Big Burn firestorm that swept the Northern Rockies in 1910.

Authorities attribute the Camp Fire’s high casualty count in large part to the tremendous speed with which flames raced through Paradise with little advance warning, driven by howling winds and fueled by drought-desiccated scrub and trees.

The remains of many victims were found in the ashen rubble of homes, others inside or near the burned-out wreckage of vehicles.

The cause of the blaze, which was fully contained earlier this week, remained under investigation. But PG&E Corp reported equipment problems near the origin of the fire around the time it began on Nov. 8.

The official roster of people unaccounted for has fluctuated widely from day to day, but as of Wednesday night, the list was winnowed to 196 names, down from a peak of 1,200-plus over a week ago.

The sheriff said the list had since been scrubbed of all duplicate names and that investigators had caught up with a backlog of unprocessed missing-persons reports.

(Reporting by Lee van der Voo in Chico, Calif.; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Some 88 killed, 196 missing three weeks after Camp Fire began: sheriff

FILE PHOTO: A group of U.S. Forest Service firefighters monitor a back fire while battling to save homes at the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

By Lee van der Voo

CHICO, Calif. (Reuters) -At least 88 people have been killed and 196 people are listed as missing three weeks after the deadliest wildfire in California history torched a small mountain community leaving it in smoldering ruins, authorities said on Wednesday.

The Camp Fire, which began on Nov. 8, destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and burned nearly 153,000 acres (62,000 hectares), an area five times the size of San Francisco, in and around the town of Paradise, a northern California community of 27,000 people.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said on Wednesday he was optimistic that some of the 196 people listed as missing could still be alive.

“That said, as we move into repopulating these areas and allowing people to go into the areas, it is possible that some will find bones or bone fragments,” he told reporters, adding that authorities have ended their search for victims.

The number of people on the list of missing has fluctuated. People who were believed missing have been found in shelters or staying in hotels or with friends, authorities said.

Three people were removed from the list of missing on Wednesday when they were found in an RV park, the sheriff said.

Some 35 people who were killed in the fire have been identified through DNA and other forensics while another 47 have been tentatively identified. Six remain unidentified, the sheriff said.

Fire officials said they reached full containment of the fire on Sunday. Investigators have yet to determine the cause.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Nick Macfie)

California wildfire that killed at least 85 people fully contained

FILE PHOTO: Vanthy Bizzle hands some small religious figurines to her husband Brett Bizzle in the remains of their home after returning for the first time since the Camp Fire forced them to evacuate in Paradise, California, U.S. November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

(Reuters) – The deadliest wildfire in California history that destroyed the mountain town of Paradise and killed at least 85 people was 100 percent contained on Sunday, according to state fire officials.

FILE PHOTO: The word "sorry" is spray painted on the edge of a property burned by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

FILE PHOTO: The word “sorry” is spray painted on the edge of a property burned by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

The number of people still missing from the Camp Fire north of San Francisco dropped to 249 on Sunday, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said. The number was revised down from 475 as people who were believed missing were found in shelters, staying in hotels or with friends, officials said, adding that many did not know they were on the list.

The Camp Fire that started on Nov. 8 destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and burned nearly 154,000 acres (62,000 hectares) – an area five times the size of San Francisco.

Searchers will have a few more days of dry weather, but starting late Tuesday, another 2-5 inches (5 to 13 cm) of rain is expected to drop on the Sierra Nevada foothills through next Sunday, hampering the searchers work and renewing fears of flash floods and mudslides, forecasters said.

“The fear is that the rain will drop in intense bursts,” Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the federal Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, said early Sunday.

“All the vegetation has burned away, and that’s a dangerous recipe for mudslides,” Hurley said.

Last week, 2-3 inches (5-8 cm) of rain fell there and turned ash from the thousands of destroyed homes into slurry, complicating the work of finding bodies reduced to bone fragments.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea has warned that remains of some victims may never be found.

The town of Paradise was a popular destination for retirees, with people aged 65 or older accounting for a quarter of its 27,000 residents. Most of the victims of the fire identified so far were of retirement age.

Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire.

Thousands of people forced to flee Paradise spent Thanksgiving in warehouses in the nearby city of Chico, or with friends or relatives in nearby towns.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; additional reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Gabriella Borter and Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)