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.