One of the first post-fire issues landowners face is property cleanup. Debris can include homes, vehicles, structures, personal property, chemicals, and toxins.

Debris cleanup also includes burnt trees. How and when to remove damaged trees is one of the most complicated situations an owner will have to deal with post-fire.

How and when to remove and clean up the trees

Burnt trees that are still standing are weakened by the fire and at risk of falling down at any time. They are therefore a hazard to anyone on the property. Therefore, to safely work on cleaning up the other debris on the property, the dangerous trees, often called “hazard trees,” must first come down.

Before felling the trees, owners should document the damage .  Take wide angle photographs that show the tree, the tree’s location on the property, and the damage all in one shot.

Factors to consider in deciding to take down a tree:

Is the tree a hazard to the public?

If the tree poses a threat to a public right of way or property like a road, ultimately the county can force you to remove the tree or allow them to enter your property so that the county can remove it.

Will the tree survive?

Many trees look completely burned, but will recover. Nobody wants to cut down trees that will end up surviving. An arborist can provide an opinion. In general, however, oaks are hardy while pine trees can withstand very little fire damage.

Does the tree pose a risk to your own property?

Keep in mind that there may be large equipment being used on the property during cleanup and rebuilding. Many operators won’t work on properties with trees in danger of falling nearby.

A still-standing tree may appear stable, but with increased winds, rain, and snowfall approaching it may actually pose a risk to someone on your property.

There can be root damage from the fire that hides the damage and the risk of the tree falling.  Again, an arborist can help.

What happens to the wood when the tree is felled?

Will the tree be cut in long enough sections to be worth milling, or “lopped”?

Will the contractor haul away the tree or leave it on your property?

If they leave trees on your property, will they stack and organize them?

If PG&E or the County cut down your trees, what happens?

What kind of damages can PG&E be made to pay for?

The laws in California provide unique avenues for recovery that don’t exist in other states.  It’s important to hire an experienced CA attorney to maximize the recovery in your case.  PG&E can be required to pay for the diminution in value that your property suffers as result of the loss of the tree, the value of the tree using the “trunk formula method” of valuing trees or, in some cases, the cost of replace the tree with one of like kind, size, and species.

We are experienced PG&E wildfire attorneys. If you have standing dead trees on your property after the Dixie Fire, call today and we’ll walk you through what you stand to recover for your trees. You will be connected to one of the attorneys in the firm that have worked closely with expert arborists, foresters, and engineers in past cases and know the complexities of these cases first hand. The laws governing tree damages are complex and date back to the 1800s, hiring an experienced attorney like those at Danko Meredith to guide your case to a resolution is the best thing you can do in your recovery.

FEMA aid is now available for Dixie Fire survivors.  Aid can include money for temporary housing, for repairs, and for certain personal properly losses.

Deadline for registering is October 15.

The catches:

  • By and large, FEMA helps only when the loss is uninsured or underinsured.  For example, if your insurer provides Alternative Living Expense coverage, FEMA will not provide money for temporary housing.
  • You will have to repay any benefits you receive from FEMA out of any settlement you receive from PG&E as part of a Dixie Fire Claim.

To apply:

  1. Visit DisasterAssistance.gov
  2. Download the FEMA App
  3. Call the FEMA Helpline at (800) 621-3362

You will need to provide FEMA with information concerning your insurance coverage and information concerning any denial of benefits.  You’ll hear from FEMA concerning your eligibility after you’ve completed the registration process.

I was covered for the Dixie Fire under the California FAIR Plan.  What now?

The good news is that FAIR Plan policies pay for the cash value of your dwelling, and the cash value of its contents.  But that’s about it.

  1. No rebuilding costs. Most FAIR Plan policies pay only for the dwelling’s actual cash value.  They don’t pay for the costs of replacing or rebuilding the home, which is almost always substantially more than its value.
  2. Limited relocation costs. Most FAIR Plan policies cover the cost of renting a place to live while you are out of your house, but only up to a dollar limit of 10% of your dwelling coverage, regardless of how long it takes to rebuild or replace your home. And while private fire insurance policies pay for “Additional Living Expenses” such as the costs extra mileage, pet boarding, meals, furniture rentals, and so on, FAIR Plan policies do not.

And of course, regardless of whether you have private insurance or a FAIR Plan policy, insurance won’t cover the costs of replacing trees that were burned, the true value of sentimental items that burned, income you may lose, or emotional trauma you may suffer.  To be made whole, you need to make a Dixie Fire claim against PG&E.

To make a claim against your FAIR Plan, it’s not enough to call your insurance broker.  You have to make a claim on the FAIR Plan website.  You’ll need your policy number.  Here’s the link:  Make a FAIR Plan claim.

The Dixie Fire is now the second largest wildfire in California history, at nearly 500,000 acres.   So far, it has destroyed more than 1000 structures, including 550 homes.  It has totally destroyed the town of Greenville.

Though the fire boundaries are huge, it’s unlikely that PG&E’s financial liability from the Dixie Fire will come close to its liability for the Camp or North Bay Fires.  Those fire burned more than 25,000 structures.

Estimates of the dollar amount of damages caused by the Dixie Fire thus far are hard to come by.  Guggenheim  Securities says that total damages may already exceed $1 Billion.  If that is true, and if PG&E must pay for all of it, then PG&E’s liability would exceed the limits of its private insurance.  To pay survivors’ claims,  PG&E would then have to draw from the state-sponsored wildfire insurance fund. Currently, there is $10 billion available in the fund for that purpose.  (The insurance fund is unrelated to the Fire Victims Trust Fund, which was set aside for the victims of the Camp, North Bay, and Butte Fires.)

Right now, then, there’s money to cover the Dixie losses.  The worry is that we’re still early in the fire season.  The Dixie Fire might not be the only drain on the state-sponsored fund.

 

 

PG&E now acknowledges that its equipment likely ignited the Dixie Fire.  In its July 18 report to state regulators, it admits that there was a power outage, that a troubleman went to investigate, that the troubleman saw a tree leaning against PG&E wires, that the troubleman saw blown fuses on the ground nearby, and that he also saw a fire starting near the base of the tree.

“The responding PG&E troubleman observed from a distance what he thought was a blown fuse on the PG&E Bucks Creek 1101 12kV Overhead Distribution Circuit uphill from his location. Due to the challenging terrain and road work resulting in a bridge closure, he was not able to reach the pole with the fuse until approximately 1640 hours. There he observed two of three fuses blown and what appeared to him to be a healthy green tree leaning into the Bucks Creek 1101 12 kV conductor, which was still intact and suspended on the poles. He also observed a fire on the ground near the base of the tree. The troubleman manually removed the third fuse and reported the fire, his supervisor called 9-1-1, and the 9-1-1 operator replied they were aware of the fire and responding. CAL FIRE air support arrived on scene by approximately 1730 hours and began dropping fire retardant and water.”

PG&E is supposed to keep trees trimmed at least 4 feet from its electrical lines to prevent just this sort of fire.  PG&E failed to do that.  It appears PG&E is liable for the Dixie Fire.

But can PG&E pay?  PG&E is now out of bankruptcy, so claims for damages will be made in state court directly against the “New PG&E,” not in federal bankruptcy court against the Fire Victims Trust.  According to PG&E recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, PG&E has approximately $300 million in insurance coverage for the Dixie Fire.  Fires that PG&E ignites after August 1 are covered by an additional $600 million:

“In April 2021, the Utility purchased approximately $268 million in wildfire liability insurance coverage for the period of April 13, 2021 to April 1, 2022, and approximately $32 million in wildfire liability reinsurance for the period of April 1, 2021 to April 1, 2022 at a cost of approximately $220 million. This coverage is in addition to approximately $11 million in existing wildfire reinsurance for the period of July 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021 and approximately $600 million in existing wildfire liability insurance purchased by the Utility in August 2020 for the period of August 1, 2020 to August 1, 2021. On August 1, 2021, the $600 million of existing wildfire liability coverage is scheduled to renew for the period of August 1, 2021 to August 1, 2022 at a cost of approximately $516 million pursuant to multi-year policy terms. The Utility’s wildfire liability insurance is subject to an initial self-insured retention of $60 million.”

Will PG&E’s ultimate liability for the Dixie Fire exceed the $300 million in available insurance coverage?  It’s too soon to tell.

 

KPIX5 asks Mike Danko about the criminal charges brought against PG&E for its role in the Kincade fire.  Danko explains that even if a jury renders a guilty verdict, no one at PG&E will go to jail.  It’s the civil justice system, not the criminal justice system, that compensates victims for their losses.

 

Kincade Fire and PG&E - Mike Danko Explains
Danko Explains What PG&E Indictment Means

CNBC asked me and Governor Newsom about PG&E’s future.

PG&E hopes to exit bankruptcy by June 30.  It’s plan calls for $13.5 billion to be set aside for its victims to make claims against.  The trouble is, if PG&E can’t get its planned approved by June 30, it will lose access to a $21 billion fund that will help protect its financial condition in the event of future wildfires.  If it can’t get access to the fund, its lenders and others who are providing support for the plan will back out of the deal.

The Governor dislikes PG&E’s plan and is talking about having the state take over PG&E.  If PG&E’s exit plan falls apart, how will victims be paid for their losses?

Watch online.

How will State takeover of PG&E affect wildfire victims?