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Dozens of Lake County fire victims face future without insurance

Nearly half of the 70 homes damaged or destroyed by the Rocky and Jerusalem fires as they raged through southern Lake County in July and August were uninsured, leaving many residents without the means to rebuild their homes and lives, county emergency agency officials say.

Bill Hilbrandie, 81, a retired PG&E employee, is among the uninsured residents who lost his home in the massive Rocky fire, which burned for 16 days and scorched nearly 70,000 acres.

He and his sister, who also lost her uninsured home in the first days of the massive blaze, now are living in trailers on a neighbor’s parcel as they try to decide whether to abandon their 20-acre rural property, where both their homes were located, or try to find ways to reconstruct what they lost.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. If I can get a small loan for a mobile home, I’ll probably go back” to the burnt-over property, said Hilbrandie, a native of Holland.

Lake County officials still are gathering information to determine the full extent of damage from the two blazes and the number of displaced residents who lacked insurance. Together, the Rocky and Jerusalem fires burned more than 94,000 acres, mostly in Lake County, where officials have counted more destroyed and damaged homes than the tally of 57 reported by Cal Fire.

A preliminary estimate of damage to homes was pegged at $2.6 million to $2.9 million, said Marisa Chilafoe, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Services.

The low share of insurance coverage for fire victims stands in stark contrast to national homeownership statistics. Across the United States, 95 percent of homeowners are reported to have some kind of hazard insurance for their residences, said Robert P. Hartwig, president of New York-based Insurance Information Institute.

Such coverage is a prerequisite for securing a home mortgage.

“That only half of homes were insured (in the Lake County fires) is highly unusual,” Hartwig said.

Chilafoe said many of the people who lost their homes are unwilling to share personal information with the county, so officials may never learn the full extent of the damage or insurance issues.

Those who did disclose their dilemma gave a variety of reasons for not having insurance, Chilafoe said. Some fire victims have reported they were denied insurance because their homes were built without permits, or because they used nonstandard construction, had solar energy systems or lived in areas that were prone to wildfire.

Those reasons should not have precluded getting coverage, though they might have increased costs, according to state insurance officials and insurance company representatives.

“You can get insurance,” said Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for the state Department of Insurance.

There are about 120 private insurance companies in the state, as well as a bare-bones insurance provider of last resort, the quasi-governmental agency FAIR. It was established in California following the Los Angeles riots in 1965, after which many private insurance companies refused to insure properties in the Watts neighborhood.

It appears many people who were turned down once for insurance in Lake County did not pursue the issue and didn’t know about FAIR, Chilafoe said.

Dini Marotto, Hilbrandie’s 84-year-old sister, said she had insurance for several months after first moving to Lake County in the 1970s, but the company canceled her coverage, saying it was too risky to insure her home. The property is located in rugged terrain about 13 miles outside Lower Lake and near the epicenter of the Rocky fire, which Cal Fire officials say was ignited July 29 by a malfunctioning water heater in a neighbor’s outbuilding.

There are people living in fire-prone areas who have been able to obtain reasonably priced hazard insurance. One Mendocino County resident said he pays less than $1,000 a year for a 2,000-square-foot home on 40 wooded acres.

The key to getting a good deal on homeowner’s insurance is to shop around, said Nicole Mahrt-Ganley, a spokeswoman for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Kincaid, the state insurance official, urged those interested in purchasing home insurance policies to visit the state Department of Insurance website, where they can compare the various available policies and obtain tips on what to look for in coverage.

Hilbrandie said he didn’t know insurance was available to him when he installed and expanded a double-wide mobile home on the property he shares with Marotto.

But that’s not the only reason he’s uninsured. He also wasn’t concerned about fire. He dodged two other fires since moving to the spread southeast of Clear Lake in 1991. In those cases, his efforts clearing brush for 200 feet around his home, creating what is called “defensible space,” paid off.

The fast-moving Rocky fire, fueled by parched brush and tripled-digit temperatures, simply overran that buffer, Hilbrandie suggested.

“This fire was different,” he said.

Lonne Sloan, who owns the property and trailers where Hilbrandie and his sister now are staying, said she and her husband, Larry, thought they could handle any threat posed by wildfire. They did not have hazard insurance on their home and other property, except for a horse trailer.

“We never thought of it,” Sloan said. “We thought we could fight it off ourselves. We have a firetruck. We have equipment.”

The Sloans saved their home, in large part by staying put during the fire despite evacuation orders. They phoned firefighters for help during the worst of the battle and extinguished other flareups by themselves in the firefighters’ absence.

They lost a metal storage building, 11 vehicles in various states of disrepair, a log splitter, a plasma cutter, a road grader and a dump truck, along with other items.

Lonne Sloan said she’ll be considering hazard insurance in the future, depending on the cost.

“There’s never been anything like this before,” she said, adding that the couple did have an insurance agent come out earlier in the year to evaluate the property, but neither he nor the couple followed up.

Low-income loans and other forms of assistance are expected to be made available to fire victims following Gov. Jerry Brown’s declaration of an emergency for the fire-torn area. The state also has initiated the cleanup of toxic materials from the burned properties and Lake County plans to expedite building permits.

The county, North Coast Opportunities and Mendo-Lake Credit Union also have established a fund to which people may donate to fire victims. The credit union fund currently is at about $30,000, Chilafoe said. It’s not been determined how the funds will be distributed, Chilafoe said.

For the uninsured residents who lost their homes, the assistance is unlikely to cover rebuilding costs.

PG&E retirees have started a GoFundMe account to help Hilbrandie. It had raised about $400 by Tuesday night.

For his part, Hilbrandie said he will not be pursuing insurance for his future living quarters. He already has been turned down for a loan to buy a small 2001 travel trailer for $10,000 because the bank to which he applied deemed it was too old.

At his age, the octogenarian said, it seems silly to waste money on insurance.

“I’m near the end. I think I’d rather put it in the bank,” Hilbrandie said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter?@MendoReporter.

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