Law360

It is estimated that there are over 13.5 million homes in California and one-third of those are located in or near areas vulnerable to wildfires. Unfortunately, for those of us who live and work in California, wildfires are an annual occurrence that have, in recent years, become increasingly more devastating and more costly, both in terms of loss of life and damage to property. Following the wildfires that ravaged the state in 2017, insurance companies received 45,000 claims totaling close to $12 billion in losses. As this article is being written, huge wildfires are burning in Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. As affected property owners are allowed back into the burn areas and begin to rummage through the ashes, wondering how to find the strength to rebuild, insurance coverage for fire related damages may be the last thing on anyone’s mind but it will inevitably come to the forefront. Property owners need to be prepared for the insurance claims process. As discussed in this article, a number of important insurance lessons were learned from the claims submitted in connection with the 2017 wildfires and that experience, together with an understanding of certain legislation recently signed into law in California as a result of those fires, should greatly assist those impacted by the 2018 fires in how to maximize their insurance payouts.

Auteurs: Richard C. Giller Katherine J. Ellena

Nearly 9,000 separate wildfires spread through California during the 2017 fire season and those blazes burned 1.3 million acres of land or an area the size of the state of Delaware. The December 2017 Thomas Fire alone scorched more than 280,000 acres across Southern California and was the largest wildfire ever recorded in California. In fact, five of California’s most destructive wildfires on record occurred in 2017. According to the California insurance commissioner, the 2017 fires killed more than 45 people (more than in the 10 previous years combined) and they damaged or destroyed 32,000 homes, 4,300 businesses and over 8,200 vehicles, watercrafts and equipment. The National Interagency Fire Center’s predictive outlook for 2018 forecasted above normal fire potential in California due to the persistence of dry fuels, frequent offshore winds and generally unfavorable weather. Regrettably, those predictions appear to be coming to fruition.

In the last four months, the California legislature has actively taken a pro-policyholder position when it comes to insurance coverage for losses caused by wildfires. On Sept. 21, 2018, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed eight new insurance bills into law all of which were designed to assist those impacted by both the 2017 wildfires and by future wildfires, to maximize insurance protections. The September laws were in addition to three other wildfire laws the governor signed in July and August of 2018. Of these 11 new insurance laws passed and signed by the governor, only three of them (AB 1772, AB 1800 and AB 2594) took effect immediately and will play a part in the insurance claims arising out of this year’s fires; the other eight do not take effect until 2019. Nearly seven weeks to the day after Gov. Brown signed the September laws, emergency 911 calls rang through to fire departments in Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles counties on Nov. 8, 2018, seeking assistance with wildfires that would become the most costly and deadliest fires in the state’s 168-year history.