Santa Barbara Wildfire Increase 448%, Insurers Ready for Calls

By | May 8, 2009

A wildfire that began on May 5 in Santa Barbara County, Calif., continues to burn, increasing 448 percent from 500 acres burned yesterday to 2,739 acres burned and at least 20 homes destroyed as of this morning, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. The County of Santa Barbara declared a local emergency due to the fire and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, meanwhile reminding Californianas to be vigilant in preparations to protect properties during Wildfire Awareness week that began May 3.

According to the Governor’s office, as of yesterday afternoon, May 7, 3,500 homes had been threatened and 5,400 homes had been evacuated. About 13,500 people had been evacuated under mandatory orders, and 13,000 have been voluntarily evacuating their homes, although about 1,200, were able to move back in yesterday. One hundred and twenty-five people are in shelters. Ten firefighters were injured. In total, 1,400 firefighters and 177 engines are fighting the fires, the Governor’s office said.

“The Jesusita Fire has been a great challenge, there are no two ways about it,” Gov. Schwarzenegger said. “And I just heard this again from the briefing just now that because of the winds, 50 mile-an-hour winds, the lack of access to the mountainous terrain and the dense brush and all of this creates great challenges.”

Officials noted the Jesusita fire is especially close to November 2008’s Tea Fire, which destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and Montecito. Estimates of that fire reached $632 million for residential properties because the average price per house in that area is $1.4 million, with the median estimated at $1.3 million.

“My heart goes out to the families who have lost their homes and all their belongings in this wildfire,” said Insurance Commissioner Syeve Poizner. “I urge everyone who has been evacuated from their home to check their insurance policies. Many homeowners policies cover additional living expenses incurred as a result of a mandatory evacuation. Coming up with extra money for hotel stays, extra food and other additional living costs are the last thing fire evacuees should have to worry about. Check your policy, and if you have any insurance questions, call the Department of Insurance at 800-927-HELP.”

Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner reminded residents who have been evacuated due to the Jesusita Fire that they may be eligible for reimbursement for additional living expenses due to mandatory evacuations. Commissioner Poizner also encouraged all Californians to make sure their insurance policies are updated and to conduct a home inventory today.

“Victims of the devastating Santa Barbara wildfire should think first of safety and protect themselves, their families and neighbors from harm,” advised Sam Sorich, president of the Association of California Insurance Companies (ACIC).

Sorich said that at some point victims will begin the process of moving forward, which almost always involves insurance. The ACIC official encouraged all fire victims to contact their homeowners insurance companies as soon as possible to begin the recovery process. He noted that homeowners policies may cover additional living expenses (ALE) for residents who are affected by mandatory evacuation orders. ALE coverage typically includes extra food costs, increased housing costs, furniture rental, relocation and storage costs, telephone installation and extra transportation costs to and from school or work, after the deductible is reached, CDI said.

Sorich pointed out that many insurers establish temporary facilities in the fire area to help their policyholders. Insurers, in most instances, also have toll-free numbers that allow the victims to seek help as soon as possible.

Noting this fire is early in the season, Sorich said, “It is now obvious that fires in California are almost a year-round event. Fires in our state are a serious threat, and tens of thousands of claims have been filed with insurance companies, which have paid victims hundreds of millions of dollars.

“But fire losses are more than dollars and cents. Emotional attachments and irreplaceable personal items also are at risk. Residents in high risk areas should do everything possible to help prevent their homes from becoming additional casualties of California’s raging wildfires,” Sorich said.

Sorich encouraged homeowners to seriously consider suggestions from the California Fire Safe Council that are designed to protect both the inside and outside of homes in high fire risk areas, such as:

  • Clean dead leaves and needles from the roof and gutters.
  • If re-roofing, follow the local fire department’s current fire safe roofing standards.
  • Cover the chimney outlet and stovepipe with non-flammable ½-inch mesh screen.
  • Establish defensible space – meaning remove all flammable vegetation around structures.
  • Enclose the underside of eaves, balconies and decks with fire resistant materials to keep out flying embers.
  • Stack woodpiles at least three feet from all structures.
  • Locate propane tanks at least 30 feet from all structures and maintain 10 feet of clearance around the tanks.
  • If replacing windows, install only dual or triple-panel windows.
  • Install smoke detectors between living and sleeping areas.
  • Install smoke detectors in bedrooms if occupants sleep with their door closed.
  • Change smoke detector batteries annually.
  • Keep a charged, ABC-type fire extinguisher in the kitchen and garage. Make sure family members know how to use it.

    Following is a list of 800 numbers of some of the major insurers:

    • AAA Northern California (800) 922-8228
    • Allied (800) 282-1446
    • Allstate (800) 547-8676
    • Amica Mutual Insurance Co. (800) 242-6422
    • Armed Forces Insurance Exchange (800) 255-0187
    • Auto Club of Southern California’s affiliated Interinsurance Exchange (800) 672-5246
    • Balboa Insurance Group/Balboa Insurance Company/Newport Insurance Company/Meritplan Insurance Company (888) 768-2096
    • California Casualty (800) 800-9410
    • Century-National Insurance Co. (800) 733-1980
    • Chubb (800) 252-4670
    • Civil Service Employees Insurance Company (800) 282-6848
    • CNA (877) 262-2727
    • Commerce West (800) 244-1545
    • Electric Insurance Company (800) 227-2757
    • Farmers HelpPoint (800) 435-7764
    • Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company FIRE-HAT (888) 347-3428
    • GeoVera and GeoVera Specialty Insurance Company (800) 631-6478
    • Grange Insurance Association (800) 247-2643
    • IDS Property Casualty Insurance Company (Ameriprise) (800) 872-5246
    • Liberty Mutual Insurance Company (800) 225-2467
    • Lincoln General Insurance Company (866) 367-3424
    • MetLife Auto & Home (800) 854-6011
    • Nationwide/Allied (800) 282-1446
    • Oregon Mutual (800) 888-2141
    • Pacific Specialty (800) 962-1172
    • Progressive (800) 776-4737
    • Safeco (800) 332-3226
    • State Farm (800) 732-5246
    • USAA (800) 531-8222
    • Western Mutual Insurance Company and (800) 234-2103

    Residence Mutual Insurance Company

    Sources: ACIC, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CDI, NICC, Office of the Governor, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

    Topics Carriers California Catastrophe Natural Disasters Wildfire Homeowners

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