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Insurance data show Northern California fires are costliest in US history

Willie Rietman moves gutters from his burned home on Ursuline Road in the Larkfield area, Monday Oct. 23, 2017 as he begin the arduous task of clean up an debris removal. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

BILL SWINDELL,

Damage from the recent North Coast fires has totaled more than $3 billion to date, state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said Tuesday. That figure makes them the costliest wildfires in American history in terms of insured loss.

The total from Sonoma County alone has climbed to $2.8 billion so far, which alone surpasses the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, with $1.7 billion in costs at the time, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a national industry trade organization that compiles claims data. The 2015 Valley fire in Lake County had been ranked as the sixth costliest at $921 million in damages.

Adjusting for inflation over the years, the losses from the Oakland fire would be $2.7 billion in 2016 dollars, according to the institute, still less than Sonoma County’s losses from the blazes that erupted on Oct. 8. Forty-three people were killed in the regional fires.

Adding insured losses from the Mendocino, Lake, Napa and Solano county fires that flared at the same time push the overall damage from the North Coast fires to $3.2 billion, according to Jones. Fifteen major insurers provided the claims data to his department that led to these totals:

In Sonoma County, 3,963 residential structures suffered a total loss, while 7,776 had a partial loss. In Napa County, 392 homeowners lost their property, while 1,222 had a partial loss. In Mendocino County, 143 insured residences were destroyed, while 304 suffered partial damage from the Redwood Valley fire.

Overall, 4,573 residences suffered total damage across the North Coast, while 9,568 homes had a partial loss.

“As shocking as $3 billion in insured losses are, the number is sure to grow, as more claims are coming,” Jones said. “It will take years for these communities to recover and rebuild.”

In a press conference, Jones said the effects of the North Coast fires would reverberate for years in California, especially as insurers reevaluate the risk that wildfires pose to structures previously considered low-risk to such threats, such as the homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood that were destroyed when the Tubbs fire jumped six lanes of Highway 101.

“I am concerned the fire we just experienced is not an anomaly and may represent a new normal,” Jones said.

Automobile owners also suffered damage in the disaster aftermath, as 3,058 drivers in the region reported a loss on their personal car, according to Jones. In Sonoma County, 2,659 policyholders reported car damage, resulting in $23.2 million in losses.

The insurance department has so far received 14 local complaints about carriers, but Jones said “most of those were resolved on site” with his staff.

Businesses were affected as well, as 713 commercial property owners filed fire damage claims, with 590 in Sonoma County. The losses include the gutting of the Fountaingrove Inn and Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotels, the Paradise Ridge Winery and many small businesses, resulting in $132 million in losses so far in the county.

In another attempt to quantify the loss to the region’s economy, the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University announced Tuesday it will undertake a study on the immediate and long-term effects on the industry as well as wine tourism.

The industry suffered mostly minor damage from the blazes as about 10 wineries have reported significant damage and the vast majority of vineyards were unscathed. The biggest effect will be on worker housing. “A lot of employees lost their homes,” said Jon Moramarco, a wine industry consultant.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.