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October fire survivors press California lawmakers amid debate over utility liability

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Dozens of wildfire survivors from the North Bay and beyond brought their stories of terror and loss Wednesday to the state Capitol amid lawmakers’ deliberations over wildfire response and the billion-dollar liabilities faced by utilities.

About 85 members of the Santa Rosa-based group Up from the Ashes made personal visits to some legislators, getting reactions that ranged from supportive to at least one instance of a seemingly cold political no-show.

Lynn Dorsey, of Santa Rosa, carried with her photos of her house near Coffey Park before and after it was incinerated by the Tubbs fire early Oct. 9. Dorsey recounted fleeing from the home that night with her husband, Bill, through a “tornado of wind” and flames surrounding their car.

“Oh, that’s crazy,” Katerina Robinson, legislative director to state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said upon seeing Dorsey’s photos. “I’m so sorry.”

“I think you guys have a very compelling story,” Robinson said, endorsing the lobbying effort by the Up from the Ashes coalition, which represents fire survivors and trial attorneys.

“The titans are up here telling their story,” she added, referring to the multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign by PG&E, insurance companies and other corporate interests with a stake in the future of how California strives to prevent future wildfires and divvies up the costs of last year’s fires estimated at $10 billion or more.

Several other survivors were dismayed by Assemblyman Bill Quirk’s decision to attend a legislative meeting rather than keep his appointment with them.

Tomasa Dueñas, chief of staff for the Hayward Democrat, said later the meeting had come up in the course of the day’s business. She declined to name who else was at the meeting.

Quirk is the author of a closely watched bill supported by PG&E that would enable the utility to sell state-authorized bonds to finance billions of dollars in wildfire damages, with the utility’s millions of customers paying for them through charges on their power bills.

Cathie Merkel and five other survivors stood awkwardly in the hallway outside Quirk’s office with his legislative director, Miranda Flores, as people walked between them, their footsteps resounding on the hard floor.

Merkel related the Tubbs fire death of her 78-year-old mother, Sharon Robinson, in her Mark West-area home, where Merkel had grown up and her mother had filled with fiber, mosaic and hand-drawn artwork. Robinson’s pieces were featured in magazines, national and international competitions and museums, including the Smithsonian.

“They identified her by the serial number on her knee replacement,” Merkel said. “That was what was left of my mom.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Flores said, making little other comment.

Merkel finally turned and walked away.

“This is like a waste of time,” she said. “I can’t believe it. It’s kind of a joke.”

“I would say it’s a slap in the face,” said Don Spitzer, who lost his home off Riebli Road on Oct.8.

Spitzer said he was concerned that “big business, big money will take precedence over the people these representatives are supposed to be serving.”

The lobbying trip came on the eve of a hearing that is set to delve deeper into potential changes in the way utilities are held liable for costs from disasters that are caused by their equipment. Quirk’s bill is one of several proposals in the mix, which also includes a rough outline of reforms put forward by Gov. Jerry Brown and other grid-upgrade and fire safety legislation backed by PG&E and its largest employee union.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, co-chairman of the 10-member bipartisan conference committee charged with formulating fire legislation by Aug. 31, has called Quirk’s bill a “total bailout” for PG&E and said it was “incredibly flawed.”

Today the committee is scheduled to hold its third public hearing, focused on the tinderbox issue of inverse condemnation, the long-established state policy that holds investor-owned utilities liable for wildfire damage to private property even when they are not deemed negligent.

PG&E and Gov. Brown are pressing for a change in the policy that would exempt the utility from liability in cases in which it has acted reasonably.

Fire survivors and their allies, including trial attorneys and local governments, are opposed to any immediate changes.

Cal Fire has yet to issue its report on the cause of the Tubbs fire, the most destructive in state history, but the agency has found PG&E power equipment responsible for 16 other major fires in Northern California last October, including blazes in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties. In 11 of those cases, state investigators found evidence the utility violated state code governing power line maintenance.

“I want PG&E to be held accountable for what they did,” said Lynn Dorsey, the Coffey Park homeowner who came with photos of her destroyed property. “Make sure they clear all the brush around the lines so this doesn’t happen again.”

Wednesday’s citizen-lobbying event began with a rally on the Capitol steps.

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner told the crowd that “we need to keep our constitutional rights of inverse condemnation so we can have the funds to rebuild our community.”

Santa Rosa Police Capt. Ray Navarro recalled that 119 department employees responded in the first six hours of the hellish firestorm that raced from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, devastating Fountaingrove and hurdling six lanes of Highway 101 to incinerate Coffey Park. Navarro said 83 officers were in the field the night of Oct. 8 to 9 along with city firefighters, evacuating people under conditions that “endangered their lives.”

John Harrington, a survivor of the Nuns fire in Napa County, recalled the chaotic escape he and his wife, Diana, made driving separate cars through the firestorm. “Everything was in flames,” he said. “There was wind, there was smoke; we couldn’t see anything.”

Harrington called on his fellow survivors to “work against the governor’s plan to let PG&E off the hook.”

An investment advisor, Harrington said “the only morality they know is materialistic self-interest.”

Experts who have testified before the committee have said the utility giant could be in financial jeopardy if it does not gain some insulation from wildfire claims. Already, the utility has said it expects to be held liable for $2.5 billion in damages.

Richard Atmore of Ventura, a survivor of the Thomas fire in December, recalled the night that most of the cattle ranch and orchards he and his wife Bonnie had built over 30 years was destroyed.

“The embers were coming so fast I couldn’t believe it. They were burning off our cheeks,” he said. “I watched that fire come down that canyon like a cyclone.”

Cal Fire has yet to make a public determination on the cause of the Thomas fire. In its wake, Atmore said he found dead deer and mountain lions “curled up in balls.”

“Utility companies need to step up to the plate,” he said. “They need to be proactive (against wildfires).”

Patrick McCallum of Santa Rosa, a founder and spokesman for Up from the Ashes, opened the rally from a podium on the stone steps of the Capitol’s north side.

“We ask that more be done to prevent future fires and that no one suffer what we’ve been through,” said McCallum, a Sacramento lobbyist whose Fountaingrove home was destroyed in the Tubbs fire.

Smelling smoke this week from fires north of Santa Rosa “our hearts go out to those victims and those amazing firefighters protecting us now,” he said.