Costs for California Fires Nearing $12 Billion

In this Nov. 8, 2018, photo, the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif. U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says wildfires in California in 2018, released roughly the same amount of carbon emissions as are produced each year to provide electricity to the state. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

(CN) — Insurance claims from the deadly fire season in California are approaching $9 billion according to the California agency that tracks insurance-related statistics in the Golden State, while clean-up is expected to reach $3 billion.

More than 20,000 houses, business and other structures were destroyed in the season’s three major fires — the Camp, Woosley and Hill Fires — and as residents of the affected towns begin to trickle back and assess the extent of the damage, they are beginning to file claims giving officials a preliminary picture of the cost of recovery.

“The devastating wildfires of 2018 were the deadliest and costliest wildfire catastrophes in California’s history,” said Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. “The tragic deaths of 88 people and over $9 billion in insured losses to date are shocking numbers – behind the insured loss numbers are thousands of people who’ve been traumatized by unfathomable loss.”

The announcement from the California Department of Insurance came one day after state and federal authorities estimated the clean up costs associated with removing trees and debris from razed towns will come in around $3 billion.

The clean up costs alone are nearly double what the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers spent last year to pick up after the Wine Country Fires that destroyed a sizeable portion of Santa Rosa.

It’s important to note that the total number of insurance claims is expected to rise as more areas of the affected towns continue to open back up to residents.

This year, Paradise, which sits nestled in the foothills to the east of Chico, was nearly entirely destroyed as an estimated 80 percent of the town was razed to the ground as a wildfire driven by heavy winds ripped through the town in a matter of hours.

That fire killed 86 people, as the missing persons total has dropped from nearly 1,000 to only three, according to the latest report released by the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

The Woolsey Fire destroyed about 1,600 structures around the town of Malibu in a portion of the coastal range that spans Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. At least three people were killed in the blaze.

In Butte County, residents victimized by the fires have filed a spate of lawsuits in state court, most of which focus on Pacific Gas & Electric’s advertising surrounding the maintenance of its power grid to enhance wildfire safety.

The California Department of Fire and Forestry have yet to determine a cause for the Camp Fire, but in a regulatory filing, PG&E admitted portions of its grid was malfunctioning in proximity to where the fire started, including sparking power lines in a canyon near Puluga.

In a report the utility released on Tuesday, it acknowledged a power line came loose from a tower in the area near where the fire started but reiterated the cause of the Camp Fire was under investigation.

PG&E took out advertisements to burnish its image in the wake of the San Bruno Pipeline explosion, which killed eight people and injured dozens of others in what regulators later found to be a result of poor maintenance by the utility.  

The plaintiffs in the suit say the advertisements fundamentally mislead the public about the amount and nature of work the utility is performing to make communities like Paradise safer when it comes to the prospect of wildfire.

“PG&E’s officers, employees, and/or agents continually and repeatedly add insult to injury by using misleading and/or untrue advertising related to PG&E’s mitigation measures, including maintenance and inspection of electrical equipment and facilities,” said plaintiffs Lila Williams and Louise Howell in one of the suits.

The plaintiffs said they relied upon and were misled by such advertisements as to the risk of wildfires in Paradise.

PG&E announced expanded safety measures this week, including additional inspections while appointing an executive-level employee to oversee the recovery efforts in Butte County.

The families impacted by Camp Fire are our customers, our neighbors, and our friends, and our hearts go out to those who have lost so much,” said Geisha Williams, PG&E CEO. “We are committed to supporting them through the recovery and rebuilding process and helping protect all of the customers we serve from the ever-increasing threat of wildfires.”

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