Most Evacuees Returning Home, Industry Surveys Damage

October 26, 2007

Many evacuees from the Southern California wildfires are being allowed to return to their homes, even while nine fires remain burning.

According to the National Interagency Coordination Center, 416,511 acres have burned thus far, 197,970 from the Witch Fire in San Diego County, which was only 30 percent contained as of 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) reported a total of 1,741 homes destroyed by the fires so far, and the count does not including outbuildings and commercial structures.

While damage is still being assessed, industry insured loss estimates range from $1 billion to $1.5 billion. As of Thursday evening, State Farm, the largest insurer of homes and cars in California, had received more than 2,000 property claims. Nearly 500 of those homes were either completely destroyed or damaged to the point they are considered uninhabitable, the company said.

California’s second-largest homeowners insurer, the Farmers Insusrance Group of Companies, reported it had received more than 3,500 claims. Foremost Insurance, one of the Farmers’ companies, had received more than 700 claims resulting from the fires and winds, it said.

State Farm said claims numbers are expected to rise as catastrophe claims adjusters, local claims staff and agents continue to make contact with customers who have been forced to evacuate.

Meanwhile, Glen Daraskevich, vice president of research and modeling at AIR Worldwide, said damage is likely to take a higher toll. “There is significant uncertainty in these loss estimates, stemming in large part from the future course of the Harris and Slide fires,” he said. The company noted that the growth potential for the fires still burning remains “extreme,” according to the USDA’s Forest Service.

“Additional uncertainty in losses stems from the actual fire perimeters. These continue to be refined as more information comes in. Similarly, there is uncertainty with respect to the extent to which fire suppression activities have been effective within the perimeters. While many homes and business will have survived, the number of claims is likely to be significantly larger than the number of destroyed structures, though the size of each claim for partially damaged homes is expected to be small,” Daraskevich added.

“Between 500,000 and 1 million people were forced from their homes during the course of the week in the largest evacuation in the state’s history,” Daraskevich continued. “This has significant implications for the number of time element claims these fires will generate in light of the standard homeowners policy in California, which covers loss of use in cases where the civil authorities prohibit use.”

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