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Fire survivors warn against lawyers trying to sign up recent fire victims as clients

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As fires ravaged Northern California, lawyers have descended on the region in a bid to sign up survivors as clients. The wildfire litigation industry has become big business for attorneys, but some survivors of past fires have a message for more recent victims. Buyer beware. From the California newsroom collaboration, KQED's Lily Jamali reports.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: Ash falls from the sky as residents of Plumas County in northeastern California gather in a park to eat barbecue chicken and pasta salad. Sandy Sullens lost her home of 51 years in the still-burning Dixie Fire, which has scorched about a million acres.

SANDY SULLENS: Well, we want to hear what's being done, and it's the same story over and over and over again. PG&E are...

JAMALI: The utility PG&E's equipment has sparked a catastrophic wildfire nearly every year since 2015. Early on in the Dixie Fire, the utility told state regulators its equipment may have played a role in sparking it. And attorneys took note. One group organized this free barbecue. Not far from the brisket and butter horn rolls, there's a stack of retention agreements in case anyone here is in the market for a lawyer. Bret Cook has been the Sullens' family lawyer for years. He's a local attorney who says he wants to help.

BRET COOK: We're just providing some food for the people that were evacuated from the Dixie Fire. This is a way of giving back to the community,

JAMALI: But that's not the only thing Cook is doing.

COOK: People are asking, and they want to retain us, and we're certainly not going to say no.

JAMALI: Cook has teamed up with a law firm based hundreds of miles away in San Diego. And it's not just lawyers from California. They've flown in from all across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We know the destruction of wildfires all too well. When utility companies neglect maintenance and safety, homes and lives can be lost.

JAMALI: The law group of Texas-based Mikal Watts is one of at least two dozen firms making the rounds using ads on social media like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thousands of survivors' research brought them to the Watts Guerra law firm.

JAMALI: Ads for a town hall he recently held featured Erin Brockovich, who gained fame fighting PG&E. She's now a paid spokesperson for Watts' group. But Watts' record is now being called into question by survivors of earlier wildfires. Two years ago, Watts helped broker PG&E's controversial settlement with 70,000 of the company's fire victims. His marketing materials call it a $13.5 billion settlement, even though it's currently worth billions less. That's because half of it was funded as stock of PG&E, which remains depressed as it's implicated in more fires. Reaction to his ads has been swift.

VICTORIA GANN: Oh, God, it made me sick. And it made me mad.

JAMALI: Fire victim Victoria Gann still lives in a trailer three years after a PG&E-sparked fire burned down her home.

GANN: You know, like, it's right on the heels of it. Like, you know, give these people a break. It's kind of like a dog and pony show.

JAMALI: Mikal Watts declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an email, he said the deal was one he was very proud of. Despite Watts' boasting over the size of the settlement, the retired judge in charge of distributing that money recently made this much clear. Fire victims will never be made whole. That's something survivors of earlier fires want those devastated by this latest blaze to keep in mind so that they're not victimized twice.

For NPR news, I'm Lily Jamali.

FADEL: Paul Boger at KUNR in Reno contributed to this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAMATIK'S "MUY TRANQUILO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.