Santa Rosa Firestorm - 3 Months Later

It’s three months to the day since the October, 2017 firestorm raged through Northern California forcing about 90,000 people to evacuate their homes, killing 44, and hospitalizing about 185. According to Wikipedia, this has become the costliest group of wildfires on record causing at least $9.4 billion dollars in insured damages. In total, an estimated 8,900 structures were destroyed.

About 60 days in, our shout-out list of insurance “issues” from ground zero became an educational case study. Top 10 Santa Rosa Firestorm Issues.

Today, thirty days later, it’s time for an update.


1. Underinsured - Lots for Sale – The issue of inadequate insurance limits to replace or rebuild damaged property is still the number one issue for homeowners here. My guess is that at least 50% of policyholders do not have enough insurance to complete the rebuilding process. Just about now they are realizing that suing someone to help compensate for the missing dollars is an iffy proposition and that closure will take a very long time. One solution is to qualify for and take out a loan to cover the missing funds. Another is to use the insurance proceeds to pay-off the lender, settle any remaining balance for pennies on the dollar and sell the lot. As you can imagine, there are dozens of lots coming on the market every day.

Too many people purchase insurance as if a loss will never happen to them. The truth is that insurance should be purchased as if a loss will absolutely happen.

2. Debris Removal –We outlined the USACE/FEMA process for debris removal in Santa Rosa Homeowners Flip-Flop on Debris Removal. Today, many Santa Rosa home sites have been cleared. But the progress seems to have slowed dramatically especially in the Fountaingrove area. Wondering why, we contacted the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. We learned that their priorities are currently the areas around schools, fire stations, hospitals, municipal buildings, river watersheds and the removal of thousands of automobiles holding up rebuild on cleared lots. Makes sense but not good news for everyone.

It will likely be another month or more before our homesite is cleared. Fortunately, private debris removal protocols are now in place allowing qualified independent general contractors to jump in. FEMA allows cancellation with 48-hours notice.

3. Contents Coverage – On December 21, 2017, the CA Department of Insurance issued a notice to all Property/Casualty Insurance Companies regarding Personal Property Coverage for Wildfire Claims. Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, called on all carriers to provide up to 100% of the Contents coverage limits without requiring the insureds to undertake the onerous task of completing a detailed inventory. The DOI received numerous complaints from insureds about the monumental task of attempting to identify every item of personal property they may have amassed, over years or decades, in order to collect replacement cost. Some insurers have complied…most are simply continuing to adjust claims on a case by case basis.

Initially we were told we would receive 75% of our contents limit without an inventory but this was revised a few days later to 50%. My thought is that the real number will emerge when we get to the point of restocking the rebuilt home. Very few people have the time or energy to compile a detailed contents list from memory.

4. Delays – Delay is the name of the game. Ample insurance limits and broad coverage provisions open the door to recovery. But there are obstacles on the path. Has your site been cleared? Were there environmental issues? Are architectural plans ready for the rebuild? Are the building permits in place? Is your lender onboard to help expedite the process?

While our architectural plans and permits have been filed with the city, we are weeks behind on the clean-up. To add insult to injury, the delivery of the furniture we’ve been waiting for, to furnish our temporary home, was just delayed another 3 weeks.

5. Cat Issues – Ok, I’m throwing this one in simply because it is fire-related and a little bizarre. Featured in The Press Democrat is the story of a cat that was picked up about a block from our home a couple of days after the fire by a family who refuses to let us see him to verify he is our cat Mack, let alone give him back. Long story (check out The Press Democrat article) but we are now awaiting DNA results of the cat they have and that of Mack’s sister Darcy who was returned to us after the fire. The shelter told us this is the first time they have ever had to do a DNA test.

Lynne L. Wallace, CPCU