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California governor signs wildfire bill to pay victims

Gov. Gavin Newsom signs a measure aimed at stabilizing the state's electric utilities in the face of devastating wildfires caused by their equipment, as the bills author, Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, left, Thom Porter, the director for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, center, and Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the California Governor's Office Emergency Services, right, look on in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, July 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law on Friday that shores up the state’s biggest electric utilities in the face of catastrophic wildfires and claims for damage from past blazes caused by their equipment.

It requires major utilities to spend at least $5 billion combined on safety improvements and meet new safety standards, and it creates a fund of up to $21 billion that could help pay out claims as climate change makes wildfires across the U.S. West more frequent and more destructive.

“We have a lot to be proud of in this legislation,” Newsom said, before adding lawmakers had more work to do. “This is not fixed. This is not it.”

The fund is only for future wildfire victims. Victims of the most recent wildfires — including the 2018 Northern California fire that destroyed most of the town of Paradise and killed 85 people — are not eligible for the money.

Lawsuits they have filed against Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., which was blamed for causing the fire, will be resolved as part of the utility’s bankruptcy proceedings.

Lawmakers hope the fund will stabilize the state’s three largest investor-owned utilities. Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric are in danger of having their credit ratings downgraded as a result of lawsuits stemming from wildfire damage.

Newsom said lawmakers still need to address spending money to make homes more resistant to wildfires, something they lawmakers had included in the original proposal but did not make it into the final bill.

“We made the determination that this was the best path,” the Democratic governor said.

The Legislature approved the bill just six days after the final version was published, leading some lawmakers to criticize the rushed process. But Newsom dismissed that criticism. “We’re capable as human beings of doing great things,” he said.

Up from the Ashes, a coalition of wildfire victims, praised the law. Patrick McCallum, the group’s co-chairman who lost his home during a wildfire in 2017, said it puts more pressure on PG&E to settle the lawsuits against it “for adequate, full compensation.”

“It just changes your life completely when you are a fire victim,” McCallum said. “It’s a struggle.”

PG&E spokesman James Noonan said the company is committed to working with state officials on “shared solutions” for wildfire risk.

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