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Emergency Help for Wildfire Victims

Good morning.

There are still votes left to count in California. There are races yet to be called, winners and losers yet to be determined. But the election hasn’t stopped the state’s many other long-running crises.

My colleague Ivan Penn wrote this dispatch, a reminder that for victims of wildfires, the pandemic has only compounded hardship:

A trustee overseeing a $13.5 billion compensation fund earlier this month ordered emergency payments of up to $25,000 to some of the people who lost property or suffered injuries in wildfires caused by Pacific Gas & Electric, the California utility.

The trustee, John K. Trotter, said the payments, which will go to an estimated 15,000 people, had become necessary because some fire victims who have been struggling in recent years have become destitute during the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced large parts of the economy to seize up.

“The general state of affairs for these people is so dire it’s almost hard to describe,” said Mr. Trotter, a retired state court justice who was appointed to oversee the fund by a federal bankruptcy court. “Covid and this season’s wildfires have just added to their misery. If this does not qualify as a humanitarian crisis, I don’t know what will.”

PG&E sought bankruptcy protection in January 2019 after accumulating an estimated $30 billion in liability for wildfires caused by its equipment. The company emerged from bankruptcy in July but investigators have continued to cite the utility for causing additional fires. Last month, investigators said PG&E caused the 2019 Kincade Fire, and they collected the utility’s equipment related to the Zogg Fire this year.

[Read about how PG&E raced to improve safety before fire season this year.]

In a statement about the emergency payments, Mr. Trotter noted that the areas devastated by the fires include a “disproportionate number of retired, disabled, veteran and economically disadvantaged individuals.” Many have been living in their cars, emergency tent communities or Federal Emergency Management Agency camps.

Mr. Trotter said the coronavirus also had made it difficult to reach PG&E wildfire victims who have yet to file a claim to receive payments from the wildfire fund. Although they filed claims during PG&E’s bankruptcy process, they still must submit one to the trustee for payment.

“The pandemic has really hindered the lawyers’ ability to stay in touch with their own clients,” Mr. Trotter said. “This cries out for help. In order to receive a payment, you have to submit a claims questionnaire.”

Steven Kane, a San Diego lawyer who represents some of the wildfire victims, said that he had to close an office he had set up near the fires because of the inability to meet face to face with customers but that he had continued to get claims filed.

“It’s a combination of circumstances,” Mr. Kane said. “Covid is certainly one of them. It certainly is for one of our clients who died of Covid.”

PG&E has said it has taken steps to reduce fires and protect the 16 million people in its service area, including with weather stations to track storms, cameras and devices to cut power remotely.

[Read about withering criticism regulators leveled at PG&E over last year’s blackouts.]

The company also for the last two years has cut power to millions of its customers — sometimes for as long as a week — to prevent its equipment from sparking a fire. The strategy, pioneered by San Diego Gas & Electric, has angered some customers, in particular during the pandemic when children need their home computers for distance learning.

Late last month, the California Public Advocates Office, a representative of consumers at the California Public Utilities Commission, called for additional fines of almost $166 million against PG&E for its broad use of cutting power to its customers last year.

During recent power shut-offs, PG&E said its safety improvements had allowed it to reduce the number of customers who lose power.

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On Tuesday, California public health officials announced that 11 counties would be moved back into more restrictive tiers in the state’s reopening system, underscoring what officials have said is a worrisome rise in coronavirus cases even as the state continues to add testing capacity. No counties were moved into less restrictive tiers.

[Track Covid-19 cases by California county and see other maps for the U.S. and the world.]

While California isn’t yet seeing the kind of surge hammering other states, Tuesday’s announcement was one of the most severe reopening rollbacks in the state since the summer.

“The virus does not go away just because we’re tired of it,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health secretary, said in his weekly briefing.

Much of the spread now, he said, probably traces back to at-home, indoor gatherings or people getting too lax about wearing masks and distancing at indoor or outdoor businesses.

Officials in San Francisco, which throughout the pandemic has been more cautious than required by the state, shuttered indoor dining and paused plans to reopen schools, even though the county wasn’t moved into a more restrictive tier.

[Read how the reopening tiers work.]

San Diego, Sacramento and Stanislaus Counties were moved back into the most restrictive purple tier, meaning that most indoor businesses that had been allowed to reopen must also close — although as The Modesto Bee reported, later in the day, Stanislaus County’s top public health official called the designation a mistake and planned to contest it.

San Diego was one of the most populous counties to start in the second most restrictive red tier when Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the new tiered system at the end of August, and it has barely managed to stave off new closures since then. Its move into the purple tier is discouraging for leaders of counties hoping to keep cases low while also allowing indoor dining — even at reduced capacity — to resume.

About elections:

  • It’s official: Proposition 15 failed. The measure would have updated commercial property tax rules in an effort to pump more funding into schools and local governments. Read more about it here. [The New York Times]

  • Michelle Steel, the Republican challenger, has defeated the Democratic incumbent Harley Rouda for California’s 48th Congressional District in Orange County. Mr. Rouda won the seat in the “blue wave” of 2018. [The Orange County Register]

See all California election results here. [The New York Times]

  • “Jones Day, Hands Off Our Ballots,” read a mural outside the law firm’s offices in San Francisco last week. Lawyers with Jones Day and Porter Wright are becoming uncomfortable representing President Trump in his election lawsuits, fearing they undermine the electoral system and attract negative attention. [The New York Times]

  • The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors escalated an ongoing power struggle with Sheriff Alex Villanueva and voted to explore ways he could be removed from office. [The Los Angeles Times]

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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