California Wildfire Insurance Claims Top $11.4 Billion

By KATHLEEN RONAYNE | January 30, 2019

Insurance claims from California’s deadly November 2018 wildfires have topped $11.4 billion, making the series of fires some of the most expensive in state history, officials said Monday.

A Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) team member from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) searches through the debris of a home destroyed by the Camp Fire outside of Paradise. Photo by Robert Barker Dec 11, 2018

The latest tally adds to growing concerns about the future availability of home insurance in wildfire-prone areas.

More than $8 billion of the November 2018 losses stem from the fire that leveled the town of Paradise, killing 86 people and destroying roughly 15,000 homes. The other $3 billion in losses are from two Southern California wildfires that ignited the same week.

The numbers were expected to rise, though not dramatically, state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said. So far, total damage for 2018 wildfires is close to $12.4 billion.

“These are massive numbers for us,” Lara said.

California’s wildfires are increasingly destructive and the fire season is stretching longer due to climate change. A series of 2017 wildfires in Northern California’s wine country and in parts of Southern California became the state’s most expensive in history at $11.8 billion.

It has already become harder for people in fire-prone areas to get or keep insurance, although Lara said the state is not at a point where it’s impossible for homeowners to find it. A recent law requires insurers who do not renew policies to notify customers of other options, including a pooled insurance plan of last resort known as the “FAIR plan.”

“We want to make sure that we’re monitoring the situation, and right now we don’t feel this is an area we should be alarmed about,” he said.

Still, he said the worsening fires put California “in uncharted territory.” The insurance department is beginning to collect information on non-renewed policies to assess patterns such as location, he said.

Representatives from the insurance industry acknowledged that some insurers may stop doing business in certain areas. But they said plans should still be widely available.

“California still has a competitive market, there are other carriers moving into place to write new business,” said Nicole Mahrt-Ganley of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, which represents about 60 percent of the nation’s property casualty insurance market.

Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., California’s largest utility, is preparing to file for bankruptcy as early as Tuesday. Company officials say the utility cannot afford an estimated $30 billion in costs related to deadly 2017 and 2018 wildfires.

California law makes utilities entirely liable for damage from wildfires sparked by their equipment, regardless of whether they are found to be negligent. The bankruptcy would consolidate the victims’ lawsuits and could potentially leave thousands of wildfire victims without compensation.

State investigators recently found that PG&E equipment did not spark of one of the most destructive 2017 fires, but the cause of the Paradise wildfire has not yet been determined.

After insurers pay out claims, they can try to get back the money from a utility if it is found at fault.

Armand Feliciano, vice president of the industry group, said he hopes the bankruptcy process is fair to people suffering losses and to insurers.

Regardless of what happens with PG&E, California’s insurers are prepared to pay out all the claims, most of which were filed by residential property owners, Lara said.

“We are confident that the insurers have the money to make sure that we make people whole,” Lara said.

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