Insured losses top $1 billion in Northern California fires

Deadly wildfires in Northern California have caused over $1 billion in insured losses, according to California’s insurance commissioner.

Preliminary loss figures released Thursday by State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones estimate total insured losses at $1.045 billion.

The insurers — eight of California’s largest — also found that there were 4,177 partial residential losses, 5,449 total residential losses, 601 commercial property losses, and over 3,000 auto losses.

Jones, who released the findings Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles, noted that it will take months to finalize the total insured losses from the fires.

“We know this number will climb as more victims go through the claims process, as they secure the safety of their loved ones and themselves and begin to reach out to their insurance agents and insurance companies," Jones said.

News of the insured losses come as crews continue to gain control of multiple wildfires. Firefighters from around the state are starting to return home while some evacuees are just now digging through what’s left of their neighborhoods.

Most mandatory evacuations throughout the region have been lifted, but about 22,000 people in Sonoma County were still displaced Thursday morning, either because their homes are still at risk or were in a burn zone, said Sonoma County spokesman Scott Alonso.

The fires destroyed at least 5,700 structures, including more than 2,800 homes in the city of Santa Rosa alone. Officials called it the deadliest week in California fire history, with at least 42 confirmed fatalities.

Better weather this week has helped firefighters continue to control flames and prevent further damage.

With cool temperatures and a small dose of rain expected Thursday, the objective in the days to come will be to make sure no spot fires grow out of control and that crews that have been here for nearly two weeks stay vigilant and avoid mishaps, officials from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a morning briefing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

"Just give us your best for a few more days," Cal Fire incident commander Bret Gouvea told firefighters Thursday.

According to the National Weather Service, light rain will move into the region by the afternoon. Winds will start blowing to the northeast before reversing in the evening, and gusts of up to 25 mph could breathe new life into small fires within the larger wildfire perimeters, officials said.

At their peak, the state's large fires had drawn about 11,000 firefighters into the battle. But with the largest blazes in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties nearing full containment, firefighters have begun to trickle back to their respective states, counties and districts.

The Pocket fire, the smallest but least contained of the active Sonoma County fires, had burned 16,552 acres and was 73% contained Thursday morning.

The Nuns fire was 82% contained after scorching 54,423 acres, including an offshoot near Oakmont that had worried firefighters earlier this week.

As of Thursday morning, Nuns fire activity was minimal with “some smoldering,” according to a Cal Fire incident report. “All activity [is] confined to the inside of the fire perimeter.”

The Tubbs fire, which leveled swaths of the city of Santa Rosa and was responsible for at least 22 deaths, has burned 36,432 acres and was 92% contained Thursday morning.

As with the Nuns fire, smoldering in the Tubbs fire was “contained to inside of the fire perimeter,” according to Cal Fire.

Sonoma County is holding community meetings Thursday on the process for getting state and federal aid to clean up ash and debris, Alonso said.

Cleanup of the hazardous materials can be dangerous and expensive, he said.

“We’re really concerned about people touching the debris, trying to remove ash. We will have hazardous materials teams deployed … to help homeowners with large-scale removal,” Alonso said. “We don’t want folks doing it on their own.”

In Napa County, the 51,624-acre Atlas fire, responsible for at least six deaths, was 85% contained Thursday morning.

While most evacuees in Napa County have been allowed back into their neighborhoods, many roads remained closed Thursday.

In Mendocino County, where eight people died, evacuees from the Redwood and Sulphur fires are returning home as well.

The Redwood fire was 85% contained and had burned 36,523 acres as of Thursday morning, and the nearby 2,207-acre Sulphur fire in Lake County was 96% contained.

Over the last few days, California’s Department of Insurance has taken steps to speed up assistance to policyholders affected by the fires, Jones said.

A consumer services team has been deployed to affected areas to cut through red tape and expedite claims, he said. Jones also signed a declaration of emergency on the insurance code, allowing insurers to bring in licensed adjusters from out of state.

He reminded victims that additional living expenses coverage on policies cover food, lodging and transportation associated with disasters. He asked insurers to begin advancing up to four months’ payment of the additional living expenses.

The commissioner also cautioned victims to be wary of third-party contractors who solicit business.

“We know that people are vulnerable,” Jones said. “Sadly, what we’ve seen time and time again in these circumstances, is scam artists and others will flow into an area to take advantage of people.”

To deter scams, Jones deployed a team of detectives into areas affected by the fires.

“It appears to me that we are entering a new era,” Jones added. “An era where there is no longer a fire season, but in which California and Californians are at risk year-round.”

He said that this was something California officials would have to grapple with going forward.

“There is going to have to be a lot of consideration by senior leaders in California of what this means for us in terms of how we do business, in terms of how we develop, in terms of how we operate,” Jones said.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

sonali.kohli@latimes.com

makeda.easter@latimes.com


UPDATES:

4:25 p.m.: This article was updated with more comments from State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.

2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with insurance estimates released by State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.

This article was originally published at 9 a.m.

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