California Blazes Destroy 2,000-plus Homes, Curb Insurer Appetites

By | September 23, 2015

A pair of massive California wildfires that have destroyed more than 2,000 structures are now considered among the most damaging fires in state history, and they could change the way insurers view risk or conduct underwriting in rural areas in the drought-plagued state.

The Valley Fire in the Napa and Sonoma counties has burned 76,067 acres and destroyed 1,910 structures, according to an official fire report issued on Wednesday that shows the blaze 80 percent contained.

“The Valley Fire now ranks among the top three most destructive wildfires in California history,” the report states.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday issued a disaster declaration for the Valley Fire.

Despite growing containment. the fire is still threatening an additional 3,043 structures. Four firefighters were reported injured, and there have been four civilian fatalities, according to the report.

The Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties has reportedly destroyed 475 residences, 343 outbuildings and damaged 42 structures. That fire burned 70,868 acres and is 84 percent contained, with two reported civilian fatalities, fire officials say.

Roughly 6,400 structures remained threatened by the fire, according to a fire report.

Charlie Liethen, right, embraces Sharon Dawson, who lost her home in a wildfire, in Middletown, Calif., on Monday. More than 2,000 homes had been confirmed destroyed, with the number likely to go higher as assessment continues. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Charlie Liethen, right, embraces Sharon Dawson, who lost her home in a wildfire, in Middletown, Calif., on Monday. More than 2,000 homes had been confirmed destroyed, with the number likely to go higher as assessment continues. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Tom Jeffery, a senior hazard scientist at property data provider CoreLogic, believes the fires are changing the way insurers look at underwriting the risk on rural California homes, many of which are on sprawling lots snuggled between trees and shrubbery – making for a nice view and woodsy feeling, but a deadly fire hazard.

“These are homes that really maintained and keep the natural vegetation – more than just a lawn,” he said.

In talks with the Irvine, Calif.-based firm’s insurer clientele, Jeffery said he gets the sense that greater emphasis will be put on fire mitigation in their messages to insureds and in their underwriting.

He’s seen examples of homes in burned out areas that are still standing because shrubbery was cleared and trees were kept farther from the home, “and insurers are obviously paying attention to that.”

The fires and several destructive wildfires in Northern California throughout the summer seem to already have curbed insurer appetites for writing in these fire-prone areas.

“We have heard from consumers that they are seeing that it’s difficult to find insurance,” said Madison Voss, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Insurance.

Voss, who had just returned from the scene of the Butte fire Wednesday afternoon, said she’s heard that complaint from residents in the area and the department has been getting similar gripes on its consumer hotline for several months.

When coverage is scarce the department tells homeowners about the FAIR plan, the state-sponsored program that offers a basic coverage for fire up to $1.5 million for a structure and its contents. It can also be more expensive, sending some homeowners to look for insurance in the surplus lines market.

“It’s barebones coverage, but it’s coverage,” Voss said of the FAIR plan.

There is no official tally on insured losses or overall losses, but the number of claims already rolling in is high and growing higher.

The latest department figures show 1,494 claims reported from the Valley Fire, and 799 claims from the Butte Fire. The totals are as of Sept. 21.

Those figures include single residences, rentals, non-residential and commercial properties.

“The numbers are of course expected to increase as people get back into the disaster area to see if they have a home left,” Voss said.

Some of the nation’s biggest homeowners insurers have been on the scene of the fires for the last few weeks, and they report claims counts coming in steadily.

“We still have claims coming in,” said Farmers Insurance spokeswoman Carrie Bonney. “We’ve had just over 1,000 claims reported.”

That tally is for both the Valley and Butte fires, and includes everything from total home loss claims to claims from evacuees forced to take refuge in hotels.

Farmers has at the fires 85 claims handlers, and another 20 staff – agents, volunteer staff and logistics people, according to Bonney.

Sevag A. Sarkissian, a spokesman for State Farm, which has its mobile catastrophe units deployed to the areas around the fires, broke down claims per fire. More claims are coming from the larger Valley Fire.

“As of today we have approximately 390 claims,” Sarkissian said.

State Farm received 250 homeowners claims from the Butte Fire so far, he added.

“Those numbers are expected to change as more roads open and damage assessment is done,” Sarkissian said. “This is a big event. We’re likely to see a wide variety of claims and different damages.”

Ken Enscoe, senior claims director-catastrophe operations at Nationwide Insurance, declined to offer an estimate on the number of claims the carrier has received from the fires so far.

The carrier has insureds who don’t know the status of their homes in areas that are still burning or are closed off, he said.

“There’s still some areas we can’t get into,” Enscoe said. “I even think some of our members that live in that area aren’t really sure whether their house is damaged or not. A lot of the claims that are being reported are for evacuations right now.”

Nationwide has roughly 40 claims associates and four managers dedicated to the fires, according to him.

“The situation’s significant enough that we’re having to deploy our Nationwide catastrophe team into that area,” Enscoe said.

Enscoe said he took note that a large number of destroyed properties shown in images from news coverage and on social media lacked protective distance between fuel and the property, and that many destroyed homes were surrounded by ample pine trees and shrubs below and were located in neighborhoods with small, two-lane roads.

“It did look like it was in a forest-prone area,” he said.

Some of the heightened risk in those areas was outlined in a report issued by CoreLogic last week, which shows more than 20,000 homes at risk from the Valley Fire. More than 8,000 of those homes are in “moderately high” to “maximum risk” categories totaling more than $2.5 billion in reconstruction cost.

Jeffrey is compiling data on homes destroyed or damaged in the fires to compare with properties considered at risk in the report and plans to release those figures soon.

“But just doing a visual comparison, I know what we have as high risk is where the fire hit a lot of the homes,” Jeffrey said.

Fire and climate experts have warned about the potential for catastrophic wildfires in California for the last few years amid the long running drought.

“Every year I’ve mentioned the drought conditions,” Jeffrey said.

For the last two years the experts have been wrong and Californians have suffered few severe wildfires.

Now it appears the luck has run out.

“We’re looking at possible a record-setting year in terms of total acreage in 2015,” Jeffrey said. “The weather conditions out there have kind of set up just the right factors to allow these big burns to go.”

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