A First Step Toward Recovery

Times Staff Writer

Karen Staker got the call Sunday evening at her home in Las Vegas.

By Monday morning, she was inching through traffic and smoke in a company car, headed toward Farmers Insurance Group's command center at the San Bernardino Hilton. A veteran adjuster and a member of Farmers' catastrophe teams that handled the aftermath of the devastating wildfires in Arizona and Colorado this year, Staker wasn't prepared for what she saw 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

"This is 10 times bigger than anything I've ever worked before," she said. "This is huge."

In a typical month, Staker processes three or maybe four damage claims exceeding $100,000. By Thursday morning, after 72 hours in Southern California, she was working on her fifth major claim of the week, each one for a total loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That hints at the scope of what could be, for insurance companies, the most costly wildfires in U.S. history.

The estimate is that so far roughly 2,800 homes have been lost to the blazes that began late last week and have torched more than 700,000 acres in the state. Insured losses are expected to exceed $1 billion; the 1991 Oakland Hills fire annihilated 2,900 homes at an insured cost of $1.7 billion, said Candysse Miller, a spokeswoman for the Western Insurance Information Service in Los Angeles.

Total claims, including incinerated cars and ruined businesses, reached 5,135 on Friday.

Farmers, the second-largest homeowners insurer in California, updated its statistics daily. On Tuesday, 900 claims had been filed. By midnight Wednesday, the total was 1,270. By Friday morning, it hit 1,544. And the claims kept rolling in.

For Staker and the 100 or so others on this catastrophe team -- Farmers' adjusters from around the country are assigned to the Southern California crisis -- the job is difficult in many ways. They work more or less around the clock and can be away from their homes and families for months. But, Staker said, the job can be rewarding. She often is able to deliver good news, something most people don't expect to hear from their insurance company, such as when she tells a client that temporary living expenses are covered by a policy.

"I intended to be a social worker," Staker said. "I feel like I help people more doing this than I could working for the government."

At 9 a.m. Thursday, Staker was meeting with the Grimes family, who fled their home on Del Rosa Avenue on Sunday as flames swept down the San Bernardino mountainside.

"The fire came down the hill so fast that no one had time to get anything out," said Derrick Grimes, 50. "With the wind and the blaze kicking up together, there was nothing you could do but get out with your life."

He and his wife, Denice, are thankful that they and their grandchildren escaped with no injuries. The couple living on the street behind them weren't as lucky, Derrick Grimes said, sighing. They perished trying to save their home.

"All this can be replaced," he said. "We are not rushing around, moping or crying. We are praying. God will work it all out."

The Grimes had a 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom home with fruit trees in the back. All that remains are the charred shells of their cars, lying beneath the crumpled metal garage door. Pipes snake up from the ground toward rooftops that no longer exist. A brick fireplace is surrounded by ashes that was once a family room. Inexplicably, the south wall of their house remains, revealing neatly painted stucco and white shutters.

Denice Grimes, 47, pointed to a twisted wire. "That was my lamp," she said. "We had the sofa right there."

Staker pulled a camera out of her backpack and shot pictures. She spent the better part of the morning measuring the foundation and asking the family to describe its possessions.

It was, Staker said, a fairly simple claim -- for a troubling reason: The Grimes lost everything. There wasn't a book, a tree, a scrap of paper, a piece of clothing that wasn't consumed.

Staker has spent days detailing losses by climbing through charred and water-stained homes, writing down the volumes of melted videos, noting the size of couch and table frames. Assessing the Grimes claim took, literally, minutes.

With a loss that complete, families are on the honor system, she said. The company pays claims based on what the family says was destroyed.

Unfortunately, in this case, the family's insurance is woefully inadequate.

The Grimes' policy limits payment for building coverage at $163,000. The family has $10,000 in contents coverage and $16,000 for temporary living expenses. Theirs is an old policy, with a relatively inexpensive premium, Staker said. The Grimes qualified for better coverage, but Derrick Grimes said he never imagined he would need it.

During Staker's visit, a contractor working with the Grimes stopped by. He and Staker discussed the costly building materials that were used on the Grimes' home -- the walls were plaster; the floors hardwood; the facade partly flagstone. There was no doubt the policy would pay to its limits, but that would fall far short.

Staker explained the basics of the policy to the Grimeses and the contractor but said she had to go back to the office to check some of the details. "For some reason, they can't find their policy," she joked, lightening the tension as the group stared at the rubble.

As Staker began to wrap up, clouds started to cover the sun and a cold breeze pushed through the ashes. Almost on cue, contractor, adjuster and homeowners looked to the sky.

"It looks like it's going to rain," the contractor said.

"I hope it pours," Staker said. "They weren't predicting rain until Friday. But, hey, we'll take it."

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