Claims losses from California's wildfires top $3 billion; state says some insurers may exit

Key Points
  • Residential insured losses from this month's wine country wildfires in California totaled more than $3 billion, with the claims total expected to go up.
  • As a result of the big insured losses, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said some insurers may stop writing policies in fire-risk areas.
  • The wine country wildfires started Oct. 8 and damaged or destroyed more than 14,700 homes, 728 businesses and thousands of vehicles.
The Signorello Estate winery burns in the Napa wine region in California on October 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to whip through the region.
Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Images

Insured losses from this month's wildfire disaster in Northern California topped $3.3 billion, the state Department of Insurance said Tuesday.

The claims for insured losses on residences, businesses and vehicles represents a three-fold jump from figures released two weeks by the state agency. Data was based on losses as reported to the state by 15 major insurers.

"Behind each and every one of these claims, and behind the over $3 billion in insured losses claims, are ordinary people," Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said in a call with reporters. "Tens of thousands lost everything in what has proven to be the deadliest and one of the most costly set of wildfires in our state's history."

Jones also said there's a chance insurance companies now may take a second look at areas once considered low wildfire risk and be hesitant to issue policies given the devastation seen in this month's deadly fire disaster.

"We may also see, unfortunately, insurance companies updating their models of risk associated with these fires," he said. "And that may mean in some cases some insurers will decide to write less insurance in some areas that had traditionally had been viewed as lower risk."

The fires were in at least eight Northern California counties of the state.

California wildfires put thousand of homes at risk
California wildfires put thousand of homes at risk

Overall, residential insured losses for all the fires totaled just over $3.1 billion and commercial losses represented nearly $137 million. Auto losses exceeded $28 million and farm/agriculture losses from the fires exceeded $4.5 million, with most of it in Sonoma County but also some losses in Napa County.

The wine country wildfires damaged or destroyed more than 14,700 homes, 728 businesses, and more than 3,600 private cars, commercial vehicles, farm equipment and watercraft.

At least 43 people died as a result of the devastating fires, including a firefighter.

The series of wildfires, which started the evening of Oct. 8, destroyed entire neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa. At least 5 percent of the housing stock in Sonoma County was destroyed in the fires.

The residential property insured losses in Sonoma County exceeded $2.6 billion, according to the state insurance commissioner. That number is likely to up as insurance adjusters process more claims for the hard-hit area.

As of Tuesday, all of the original wine country wildfires were 99 percent contained. The fires remain under investigation by Cal Fire. More than two dozen wineries were damaged or destroyed in the recent fires.

In Napa County, the residential property insured losses totaled more than $266 million and commercial losses exceeded $3.2 million. Mendocino County residential losses exceeded $115 million and Yuba and Lake counties had more than $48.5 million each in residential losses.

"These numbers are based on actual claims filed with the insurance companies," Jones said. "They are not an estimate, they are actual claimed insured losses."

Added Jones, "Of course in a disaster of this magnitude, there are also uninsured losses — infrastructure, schools, community centers, parks ... as well as to those who did not have insurance or were under-insured."

Jones said he is concerned that the fires could represent a new normal. "We've seen greater frequency, greater unpredictability and greater severity of fires recently," he said.

The state official said increasing dry conditions in parts of the state are contributing to the fire risk. He also blamed the changing global climate.

"The wildfires in Santa Rosa destroyed neighborhoods that had been previously understood to have be at lower risk," he said. "That fire jumped over a four-lane highway, which it was thought would function as a fire break. That didn't occur."

The state official said the policy change maybe needed since California continues "to develop in areas where there's significant change of fire. We continue not to have adequate local fire protection resources to fight those fires and we shift those costs onto Cal Fire and the state."

WATCH: What the wildfires are costing us

What the wildfires are costing us
What the wildfires are costing us