An extension of the deadline and an aggressive effort to track down victims doubled the number of claims for damages against Pacific Gas & Electric by fires in California started by its equipment.
A statement released Tuesday regarding the utility giant's bankruptcy case said more than 80,000 people were now seeking a projected aid fund for a total of $ 13.5 billion.
In his report, an accountant appointed by the court charged with identifying and finding additional victims of forest fires attributed the increased number of complaints to, among other things, "grassroots campaign efforts by the fire victims themselves".
Less than three weeks before the previous October 31 deadline, the New York Times reported that some 31,500 victims had filed complaints, but that another 70,000 could lose their benefits if they did not act quickly.
Judge Dennis Montali, who presides over the bankruptcy process, extended the deadline until December 31. Judge James Donato of the United States District Court, responsible for estimating how much PG&E owes to fire victims, said: “It would be heartbreaking to be ashamed if 10% of eligible victims do not file complaints for any reason. If we are talking about 50% non-presentation, this is intolerable ".
Judge Donato suggested that "someone should go door to door" to get victims to file complaints.
The court appointed Michael Kasolas, an accountant, to do just that. He visited churches, participated in community meetings, placed pamphlets in pizza boxes and published advertisements in the most affected areas to spread the news.
Steven Skikos, a court-appointed attorney who represents the victims' interests, said the fire victims met and decided to help ensure that others were included in the compensation group.
"The relentless reach of non-included community members and displaced fire victims helped to change the dynamics of this case," said Skikos. "I think that many don't realize how powerful a community of fire victims can be to bring about positive change."
PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection last January, after several years of extreme forest fires caused by the dealership's equipment. The company estimated its liability at tens of billions of dollars. The most deadly fire, the 2018 Camp Fire, killed 85 people and destroyed the city of Paradise in northern California.
PG&E shareholders and bondholders, together with insurance companies, federal agencies and victims' representatives, discussed how much each party should charge in the bankruptcy case and who should pay the bills.
A bankruptcy hearing is scheduled for Thursday. A significant part of the case focused on determining how much is due to the victims.
Among the remaining questions, is whether the resources allocated to the victims will be entirely in cash or partially in PG&E actions. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is trying to recover up to $ 3.9 billion in federal and state emergency services related to forest fires caused by PG&E equipment in 2015, 2017 and 2018.
FEMA has made similar requests for public services in the past, but recovered funds typically leave the company's bottom line. In that case, the issue was closed in the general equation under which PG&E will emerge from bankruptcy.
The agency said last week that it did not seek to use the $ 13.5 billion foreseen for bankrupt fire victims. But he said that those who receive benefits from the federal government and another source for the same losses may be forced to pay FEMA.
"FEMA is not trying to take money from fire survivors," said Bob Fenton, the agency's regional administrator, in an email.