Capitol Alert

These three 2018 California wildfires caused more than $9 billion in damage

Three California wildfires — the Camp Fire, Woolsey Fire and Hill Fire — caused more than $9 billion in damage resulting from more than 28,500 claims, according to a preliminary estimate from the California Insurance Commissioner’s Office.

The fires killed 88 people and damaged or destroyed nearly 20,000 structures; the Camp Fire in Butte County eclipsed 2017’s Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa to become the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history.

The Camp Fire alone destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, damaged nearly 5,000 other structures and resulted in nearly 27,000 claims and totaling $7 billion.

“Behind these numbers are real people that have suffered real tragedies,” California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said in a press conference Wednesday.

Jones said that while these numbers are preliminary and likely to rise, he added that “these are not estimates. These are hard, actual insured loss figures.”

Although the Camp Fire, Hill Fire (in San Luis Obispo County) and Woolsey Fire (in Los Angeles and Ventura) collectively caused greater destruction than last year’s North Bay fires, Jones said the preliminary damage total for 2018 has yet to exceed last year’s $12 billion in damage.

The difference likely has to do with the property values in the respective areas, Jones said.

The median home price in Sonoma County, where 40 people died during a 2017 wildfire, is $750,000, while the median in Butte County is $280,000.

“That in no way, shape or form is meant to suggest that the suffering, loss and tragedy of people in Butte County is any less than that which befell those in Sonoma County,” Jones said.

Jones strongly urged people affected by this year’s wildfires to make use of his office hotline, 1-800-927-4357, which he said will answer any question “big or small.”

“Oftentimes, we can put to good effect our expertise and experience to help people resolve those disputes (with insurance companies) and get the money they were promised,” he said.

Jones also cautioned wildfire victims to be watchful for “fraudsters and scam artists” looking to exploit them. He said consumers should make sure contractors are licensed in good standing in California, and be sure to contact his office if an unlicensed contractor makes contact.

Jones acknowledged the claims process can be long and arduous, but recommended that people work through it on their own before reaching out to a third-party adjuster, who will charge a percentage-based fee.

Jones said insurers are growing increasingly reluctant to issue policies for properties in high-risk areas.

“We are steadily marching toward a future in California where private insurance may not be available in high-risk fire, flood and coastal areas,” he said.

Jones said that although California must address its housing shortage problem, “I think we are going to have to have what will be a very difficult conversation … about how we make decisions to put more people and more businesses in harm’s way.”

Jones said the United States’ failure to take proper steps to address climate change, particularly under President Donald Trump, means temperatures will almost certainly continue to rise and California will see “more droughts, more wildfires, more losses.”

He said insurance companies in California are within their legal right to raise prices, within limits, and deny policy renewals. And while the state maintains an insurance plan of last resort, for those unable to find other policies, “it’s not subsidized, and the price is set based on the risk. So it’s not inexpensive,” Jones said.

Even those people who do have fire insurance are often under-insured, he said. That’s because they insure to the market value of their home rather than the replacement value, which is typically much higher, he said.

Jones blamed the insurance industry for watering down a proposal during the last legislative session that would have required they notify policy holders of the current replacement cost estimate for their home, so that owners have “a fighting chance” to properly insure their home.

Instead, the law says property owners may request a home replacement cost estimate every two years.

“The insurance industry worked with the Legislature to craft legislation that would provide real benefits to the wildfire survivors without causing disruption to the insurance market that would have a negative impact not only to homeowners trying to obtain insurance in the urban wildland interface, but throughout the state,” said Nicole Mahrt-Ganley, spokeswoman for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Mark Sektnan, vice president of PCI, said that “These massive wildfires put strain on our whole stystem and it is time for the Legislature to step up its focus on significant and impactful prevention and management of wildfire-prone areas while preserving California’s competitive homeowners insurance market.”

Jones argued that lawmakers must pass laws to set a standard for home and community fire defensibility that, if met, would require insurers to offer policies, and to require insurance company fire risk models be filed with the Insurance Commissioner’s Office.

“I am hopeful that in the wake of yet another tragic disaster that’s taken 88 lives statewide that some of these ideas will be picked up by the Legislature.”

Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.