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California wildfire victims fear they'll be last in payout

A settlement meant to bring some hope to wildfire survivors is sparking confusion, resentment, suspicion and despair.

SAN FRANCISCO — A $13.5 billion settlement between victims of California's catastrophic wildfires and the utility blamed for causing them was supposed to bring some peace and hope to people still reeling from the devastation. 

Instead, it has sparked confusion, resentment, suspicion and despair as the victims, government agencies, and lawyers grapple for their piece of the settlement fund. 

Dissatisfaction with the deal sets the stage for a potential scrum as PG&E scrambles to emerge from a complex bankruptcy case. 

A judge on Wednesday will weigh whether state and federal agencies are entitled to tap the fund for any of the $4 billion they spent responding to the wildfires.

In 2018, a PG&E power line sparked the Camp Fire, killing 85 people, burning roughly 153,336 acres and destroying thousands of homes and businesses.

Soon after, in January 2019, the electric company filed for bankruptcy because it was facing at least $30 billion in potential damages from lawsuits. Along with the Camp Fire, the utility’s equipment is blamed for starting massive wildfires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018, killing more than 100 people.

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On Tuesday, PG&E Corp. CEO Bill Johnson blamed negligence by the company's past management for a cascade of catastrophes that killed nearly 140 people in recent years. Johnson was trying to persuade California regulators Tuesday that he is steering the utility in a direction to make safety its top priority. 

Johnson was the first witness Tuesday in critical hearings that will help shape Pacific Gas & Electric as it tries to emerge from its second bankruptcy in less than 20 years. The company's bankruptcy plan still needs approval from the California Public Utilities Commission by June 30.

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