The measures facing a vote by the California Public Utilities Commission would order electric companies to discontinue billing at homes that were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable and waive deposits for displaced residents setting up service at new addresses.
The consumer protection package also would direct telecommunications companies to provide refunds to customers for services — such as home phone or Internet connections — that they can no longer use.
All of the steps would be temporary, lasting one year, and are designed to help the thousands of people forced out of their houses and apartments by the fires, which erupted Oct. 8. The protections would apply to people living in Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Solano, Sonoma and Yuba counties.
The package covers utilities providing electricity, natural gas, water and telecommunications services.
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Many of the ideas come from a letter that a consumer advocacy group — The Utility Reform Network — sent the commission last month. Many displaced residents of fire zones, the group noted, will face severe financial pressures as they rebuild their homes and lives. Many probably will move multiple times over the coming year.
“We’re talking about tens of thousands of people affected — it’s not a small number,” Mark Toney, executive director of TURN, said at the time. “This is a kind of disaster relief that the commission can do right away.”
The consumer protection package would direct electric utilities in the affected counties to stop disconnecting service over late payments.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the major electric and gas utility in the affected areas, says it has already cut off billing for homes destroyed in the fires and charged residents only for service through Oct. 7. It also suspended disconnections for nonpayment through the end of this year. The company asked the commission last month for permission to waive installation costs for hooking up power to properties undergoing reconstruction.
California fire investigators are looking into the possibility that PG&E’s electrical wires and equipment may have helped spark the fires, which started during a windstorm. No cause has been determined so far, and it may be months before investigators issue their findings.
A PG&E spokesman said Tuesday that the company is “generally supportive” of the commission proposal.
An AT&T representative said the proposal closely matches some of the steps his company has already taken, such as waiving charges both for starting service at a new location and for setting up remote call forwarding.
Similarly, a Comcast representative said her company already offers customers displaced from their homes ways to suspend service or trim their bills, including a $10-per-month option that allows them to continue using Xfinity service on their mobile devices.
“While Comcast isn’t specifically named in the proposal, we are in favor of doing everything possible to support those impacted by the North Bay wildfires,” spokeswoman Joan Hammel said in an email.
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