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In California, Wildfire Survivors Face Deadline To File Claims Against PG&E

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today is the last day wildfire survivors in California can file claims against PG&E. That is the bankrupt utility blamed for sparking several massive fires back in October. The judge overseeing PG&E's bankruptcy extended the deadline for filing these claims hoping that more survivors would come forward. But, as KQED's Lily Jamali reports, some in California wine country are choosing not to.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: The drone of drills has been Coffey Park's nonstop soundtrack for the past year. This working class community in Sonoma County was nearly leveled by the Tubbs Fire in 2017. Kim King was one of the first to rebuild. She used a payout from her insurance company, and she may get more because she's also filed a claim against PG&E.

KIM KING: I'm saturated with the information all the time.

JAMALI: King says that, for months, her neighborhood has been bombarded with notices about today's deadline to file for compensation from the utility.

KING: Through the news, through the mail, through the insurance company, through neighbors - it's everywhere.

JAMALI: Fire survivors originally had until October to come forward, but PG&E's bankruptcy judge granted more time after victims' lawyers convinced him that tens of thousands of those eligible could be unaware that the window to file was closing. Some victims left their neighborhoods and the region altogether. So the judge appointed accountant Michael Kasolas to track down survivors.

MICHAEL KASOLAS: There are a lot of people out there that are in need of many different things. And if they are entitled to a claim, they should file one so they could recover money in this case to help them with their recovery. It's a shame to let, you know, a claim go if you actually have one.

JAMALI: Over the past few weeks, Kasolas estimates his team has added well over 4,000 claims to the pool, bringing the total to around 75,000. The approach includes everything from passing out fliers at high school football games near fire-ravaged areas to more high tech methods, like cross-checking insurance records against claims data to see who's left. Back in Sonoma's Coffey Park, residents Janet and Herb Percy know they're eligible, but their insurance helped them rebuild, so they don't want a payout from PG&E.

JANET PERCY: We were taken care of. We've got our house rebuilt. And if I thought it was justifiable, we would have gone after it, but I don't.

JAMALI: That's because the fire that destroyed their home wasn't necessarily caused by the utility. Still, to avoid a potentially lengthy trial over liability, PG&E included it in a $13.5 billion deal with survivors of several California wildfires. With uncertainty over PG&E's role here, Herb says taking the utility's money...

HERB PERCY: That would be dishonest. Janet and I, in our 47 years, have worked hard for everything we've gotten. We've never gotten anything free, and we don't want anything for free.

JAMALI: And there's something else holding people back from filing claims against PG&E - reluctance to revisit the trauma they experienced during and after the fires. Survivor-turned-social-worker Melissa Reese sees this in her work at Catholic charities.

MELISSA REESE: You have to go through all the things you had in your home and kind of have that feeling again of - you lost your security, you lost your home, you lost all the things that you cared about. And people have to relive that.

JAMALI: The prospect of reliving those experiences remains a barrier to a potential payout that advocates say could help survivors move forward. For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali in Santa Rosa, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.