A northern California town has lost over 90% of its population since the nation's deadliest wildfire in nearly a century raged last year, new figures show.
Door-to-door surveyors counted 2,034 residents in Paradise as of April, according to data released Thursday by California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Paradise, a retirement community in the Sierra Nevada foothills, was home to about 26,800 people in 2010.
Also Thursday, Newsom certified Paradise as a rural area, which makes the town eligible for loans, grants and assistance under federally funded rural development programs.
The development came the same day lawmakers approved a bill changing how the state pays for wildfire damage caused by utilities. Newsom signed it Friday, approving the creation of a fund of up to $21 billion that could help pay out claims related to blazes sparked by Pacific Gas & Electric Corp, such as through downed power lines.
As wildfire season kicks off again, supporters of the bill cited a need to provide financial certainty to the state’s investor-owned utilities, including PG&E, which declared bankruptcy amid lawsuits related to wildfires.
The Camp Fire killed 85 people as it burned across 153,000 acres for more than two weeks last November. About 14,000 residences were destroyed, but some homeowners have started to rebuild. Officials issued the first permits to rebuild two homes in March.
Although some wildfire survivors welcomed the legislation's provisions that they say will allow them to fight for greater compensation, several lawmakers raised concerns that utility customers will be footing the bill for fires ignited by PG&E.
Under the legislation, customers will pay $10.5 billion to the fund that will cover costs from wildfires ignited by the equipment of participating electric utilities. Customers will contribute to the fund through a 15-year extension of an existing fee on monthly electricity bills.
“It is hard not to see this bill as something of a reward for monstrous behavior," said Assemblymember Marc Levine, a Democrat from San Rafael who voted against the legislation. "They haven’t done the work. They should not be rewarded."
PG&E did not take a formal position on the bill. Spokesman Lynsey Paulo said the utility was committed to resolving victims’ claims and reducing wildfire risks.
To use the fund, companies would need to meet safety standards set by state regulators. Major utilities must also spend at least $5 billion combined on safety improvements.
The state’s three major utilities — PG&E, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric — could also contribute an additional $10.5 billion to create a larger insurance fund of at least $21 billion.
Legislators supporting the bill say they will continue to develop additional wildfire prevention and home protection policies.
“No one has ever said this bill is going to be the silver bullet or fix all but it does take us in dramatic leaps to where we can stabilize California,” said Assemblyman Chris Holden, a Democrat from Pasadena and one of the bill’s authors.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Paradise, California, population down 90% after Camp Fire