SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The wildfires that ravaged Northern California wine country two months ago have generated $9 billion in insurance claims, far more than the single costliest fire in U.S. history, officials said Wednesday.
The figure is not likely to increase much more, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said. It represents residential, commercial, automobile and other property claims filed with 260 insurers by Dec. 1.
“And behind those staggering numbers are personal stories of tragedy and loss, and 44 individuals whose lives were lost,” Jones told The Associated Press.
A 1991 fire in Oakland Hills is the costliest single fire in U.S. history, prompting $2.7 billion in claims in today’s dollars, according to data from the Insurance Information Institute.
Nearly two dozen fires broke out in Northern California in mid-October. The state hasn’t provided a cost breakdown by each fire, but officials say one of the largest damaged far more buildings than the 1991 blaze.
People have filed insurance claims on more than 18,000 homes that were partially or fully destroyed, most of them in Sonoma County, where a blaze decimated several neighbourhoods, Jones said. There were nearly 2,300 business property claims, nearly 5,000 vehicle claims and 650 claims for other property, including boats.
Despite the staggering losses in a short period of time, Jones said there’s “no question” insurers have the money available to pay claims.
Some Californians have reported receiving inaccurate information from their insurance companies, Jones said. He also warned that people should vet any contractors they plan to work with on rebuilding.
One person reported to Jones’ office that they were told insurance money could only be used to rebuild on the same property. The law allows for using that money to build or buy a home anywhere, Jones said. Another was told they had 12 months to resolve their claims, not 24 as the law allows for a declared disaster like the wildfires.
The inaccuracies may stem from the fact that insurers have brought in staff from other states to handle the influx of claims, he said.
“If one person is told the wrong thing by an insurance company, it’s not acceptable,” Jones said.
Disputes over claims are likely to increase in the coming months as consumers move through the process, Jones said.
The FBI has created a task force to work with state and local agencies to investigate and prevent fraud in relief efforts. Intelligence gathered about fraudulent activities in other natural disasters this year, including hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, will help serve as a guidepost for ferreting out schemes in California, the FBI’s San Francisco division said in a statement.
Consumers in other areas of California claimed an additional $400 million in wildfire-related losses in October, including 376 residential property claims totalling $71 million from a fire in Orange County.