North Bay fire survivors race to rebuild homes as insurance payments wind down
Madonna Day desperately wants to return home.
The 86-year-old can look around her Sonoma County property near the Napa County line along Highway 128 and see Mount St. Helena not far in the distance.
She also can see the spot where the dirt was leveled to begin construction of her new home in Knights Valley - to replace the one destroyed in the Tubbs fire two years ago. She is eager to see the foundation rise on the same tract where she has lived since 1971.
But Day said it may be another year before she is in her rebuilt home. She's been wrangling to get reimbursements from her insurer, State Farm, and trying to finalize with an architect the design for a new house. Then there's her biggest worry: State Farm notified her June 7 it will not cover her monthly home rental expenses beyond Sept. 1, more than a month before the second anniversary of the North Bay fires.
“I don't know where I am going to go,” said Day. She estimates she's underinsured by as much as $1.2 million for her rebuild and needs every cent she can get from State Farm to help cover the cost.
“That's what I lay awake thinking about,” she said.
Day is one of hundreds if not thousands of North Bay fire survivors in the same potentially dire financial situation. Their new houses won't be ready to move into by October, the two-year mark after the fires, and the point when home insurers no longer are obligated by California law to pay for monthly living expenses. The coverage is crucial because most fire victims still are paying a monthly mortgage on their homes gutted by flames.
In Sonoma County, the 2017 fires destroyed 5,334 homes and killed 24 people. At best, 40% of fire survivors countywide are expected to move into new houses by the two-year anniversary of the fires, Michael Gossman, director of the county's Office of Recovery and Resiliency, said last month. In addition, some 1,200 homeowners in Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties also lost their homes in the 2017 blazes and many are struggling to finish rebuilding by the two-year anniversary.
Last year, state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, led the legislative push to require home insurers to extend living expense payments from two to three years for people who lost a home in the 2017 and 2018 infernos. But before the bill was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the powerful insurance lobby blocked the attempt to retroactively cover 2017 fire survivors.
After arm twisting by local officials, new California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara on May 28 came to Santa Rosa to meet a small group of local fire victims and announce his urgent request to home insurers to voluntarily provide a third year of monthly living expenses for those displaced by the 2017 infernos.
Lara has no authority to force insurers to extend that benefit. But, he told The Press Democrat, “It is the right thing to do. It's the human thing to do.”
This month, Lara said, his office is “making good headway” in discussions with insurance company officials but he wouldn't divulge specifics. Still, the clock is ticking and area residents like Day are starting to receive letters from their home insurers indicating temporary home rental payments soon will end.
Marc Selivanoff of Santa Rosa said he and his family intend to move into a camper on their vacant plot in Hidden Valley Estates after a Nationwide affiliate stops paying their monthly living expenses later this year. He thinks his family might have to live in the camper for a year before their new house is built.
“Not our ideal, but certainly better than some will be able to do,” Selivanoff said by email.
Compliance by insurers
The Press Democrat contacted the 10 largest home insurance companies in the North Bay to ask officials of each if they would comply with the insurance commissioner's request to pay 2017 fire victims a third year of living expenses. Only CSAA Insurance, the AAA insurer for Northern California, and Farmers said they definitely will extend another year of temporary rental expenses.
Hartford and Chubb officials said their respective home insurance policies typically don't set a fixed time limit on living expense payments. Meanwhile, Travelers includes a maximum amount of living expenses in its policies rather than setting a time limit.
Antonio Wong, a CSAA policyholder in Santa Rosa, said he plans to remain in his Rohnert Park rental for another year as construction continues on his Fountaingrove home.
“It seems like some insurance companies have not been bending at all,” Wong said, however, CSAA has been “pretty good.”
That's not the sentiment of the State Farm and Nationwide policyholders interviewed for this story. They said they had been notified by their insurers that their living expense payments would end at the two-year mark.