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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California’s October Firestorm Claims 43rd Victim

A 17-year-old woman has died from burns she suffered fleeing from a forest fire in Mendocino County, becoming the 43rd victim of Northern California's recent firestorm.

(CN) – A 17-year-old woman has died from burns she suffered fleeing from a forest fire in Mendocino County, becoming the 43rd victim of Northern California's recent firestorm.

Kressa Shepard died about three weeks after her younger brother Kai died when the two siblings and their parents tried to escape the rapidly moving wildfire that consumed their home in a forested valley northeast of Ukiah, California.

Shepard's parents, Jon and Sara, suffered severe injuries in the fire and remain hospitalized in intensive care units and in varying degrees of lucidity, according to a blog which solicits donations for the family maintained by Kressa and Kai’s aunt Mindi Ramos.

Kai Shepard was the youngest victim of the fires.

News of Kressa’s death came amid reports that the fires that broke out Oct. 8 and are the deadliest and most costly firestorm in the state’s history have been largely contained.

The major fires – the Redwood/Potter Fire in Mendocino County, the Nuns, Atlas, Pocket and Tubbs Fires in Sonoma and Napa counties, and the Cascade Fire in Yuba County – all stand at 99 percent or full containment according to Cal Fire’s latest reports.

And weather forecasts for California’s first big winter storm, with two low pressure systems poised to dump rain and snow on Northern California beginning Friday, bode well for ending the fire season.

But the cessation in the fire season also gives the state an opportunity to review the extent of the firestorm’s human and economic toll.

"As we mourn for those we have lost, let us dedicate ourselves first to the aid of the survivors and then to the causes of safety and preparedness in our increasingly fire-prone state," California Gov. Jerry Brown said in declaring a day of remembrance over the weekend.

On Tuesday, state Insurance Commissioner Davy Jones said the insurance industry reported $3.1 billion in insured losses. That staggering total is only a portion of the aggregate, however, as it doesn’t include uninsured losses and damage to public assets such as parks.

There have been 10,016 claims filed for partial residential losses, 4,712 claims filed for total residential losses and 728 claims filed related to either partial or total losses of commercial property.

“Many Californians are facing a recovery process that will be long and painful,” Jones said during the Tuesday press conference.

Meanwhile, Cal Fire investigators have not yet publicly identified the cause of the firestorm that broke out simultaneously in different sectors of Northern California.

Multiple reports indicated police emergency scanners received calls of downed power lines due to the heavy winds at around the same time the fires broke out, but investigators have yet to corroborate the reports.

Concerns over the culpability of Pacific Gas & Electric – and its efforts to lobby state officials to allow it to pass the costs of wildfire-related lawsuit settlements on to ratepayers – prompted lawmakers to craft a bill that would make it illegal for PG&E to do so.

“Victims of devastating fires and other customers should not be forced to pay for the mistakes made by utilities,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. “It’s time to stop allowing utilities to push the burden of their negligence onto the backs of customers.”

Hill is joined by state Sens. Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Mark McGuire of Santa Rosa and Assemblyman Mark Levine, who represents Marin. The four lawmakers pledged to introduce the bill when the Legislature returns in January.

The lawmakers point to efforts by San Diego Gas and Electric Company to recoup nearly $379 million in costs associated downed power lines that caused three large wildfires in 2007. Those fires burned more than 200,000 acres, killed two people and destroyed more than 1,300 structures.

Similarly, PG&E has attempted to lobby the California Public Utilities Commission for a rate hike to pay for costs related to the 2015 Butte Fire, which killed two, burned 70,000 acres and destroyed 921 structures in Calaveras and Amador counties.

This year’s firestorm has killed 43, burned more than 210,000 acres and destroyed thousands of structures – many homes. It’s also the deadliest U.S. wildfire since the Cloquet Fire in 1918, which killed 453 people in northern Minnesota.

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