California insurance chief urges insurers to extend living expense payments for 2017 fire victims
To pressure insurers and allay fears of 2017 wildfire survivors, California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara urged insurance companies to provide a third year of temporary living expenses for them, as they continue to rebuild houses amid construction delays.
Lara on Tuesday night announced his request of home insurers during a closed-door meeting in Santa Rosa with a group of about 40 Sonoma County fire survivors, including block captains from local neighborhoods devastated by the fierce Tubbs fire in October 2017. That fire, the worst in state history at the time, destroyed 5,334 homes countywide. As of April 30, only 393 of those homes, or less than 10%, have been rebuilt.
Local survivors of the fires two years ago find themselves in a quandary because state law only requires insurers to pay up to two years of living expenses for them, and that period ends in October. Most of those residents rebuilding won’t have their new houses finished by then in the city’s fire-ravaged Coffey Park and Fountaingrove neighborhoods, or in nearby Larkfield, Mark West Springs and Sonoma Valley.
Last year, the state Legislature passed a blll sponsored by Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, that requires home insurers to extend coverage for fire victims’ living expenses from two to three years. Although Dodd wanted the legislation to be applied retroactively to 2017 fire survivors, the powerful insurance industry lobby blocked that provision so Santa Rosa-area residents struggling with slow home rebuilding efforts are not helped by the 2018 law.
Since there’s no new legistative action planned this year in Sacramento on this critical insurance matter, the county’s Tubbs fire survivors will need to work individually with their home insurers regarding potential extensions of living expenses coverage. It’s unpredictable how many, ultimately, will be successful. Therefore, the state’s top insurance regulator coming here to listen to recovering fire victims and put public pressure on home insurers was quite welcome.
Jeff Okrepkie, president of Coffey Park’s neighborhood group Coffey Strong, said Lara’s visit and his fervent message to insurance companies shows the state is “behind” the North Bay 2017 fire survivors.
“The law allows for flexibility. While insurers cannot increase that amount of coverage under a policy, they can, as the commissioner requested, work with policyholders to provide more time for rebuilding,” said Nicole Mahrt Ganley, a spokeswoman for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, a trade group representing about 60% of the property- casualty insurers in the United States.
“Policyholders should always have a conversation with their insurer to find solutions.”
Some insurers’ homeowner polices, for example, provide a monetary amount for temporary living costs following an inferno or other natural disaster rather than a strict time limit.
Michael Gossman, director of Sonoma County’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, said local officials hope that up to 40% of houses under construction since the fires two years ago wlll be completed by the second anniversary in October.
Notwithstanding the rebuilding progress this year, Lara told the small, invitation-only Santa Rosa gathering Tuesday: “We are continuing to push the envelope when it comes to forcing these insurance companies to be accessible and to listen to the unique issues that are being faced here in Sonoma (County) by so many of the residents.”