Insurers Dispatch Wildfire Crews to Save California Homes
California’s raging wildfires are so bad that American International Group Inc., Chubb Ltd., and PURE are deploying teams of specialists and former firefighters to spray retardants on homes. The season may soon rank among the industry’s most costly.
The latest blazes have killed at least 31 people and damaged thousands of structures. For insurers that could mean several billion dollars in losses, RBC Capital Markets analyst Mark Dwelle told clients in a note on Monday. Last year, 1.24 million acres burned across the state, generating $16 billion in costs for insurers covering homes and farms, or almost quadruple the amount in 2016, according to ratings firm A.M. Best.
Insurers are hoping to reduce potential damage from the Camp Fire in the northern part of that state and the Woolsey Fire, which is spreading around parts of suburban Los Angeles. Median home values there exceed $1 million, according to estimates from Trulia. There are also mansions, owned by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, with private firefighters of their own.
“Our client base in California has been heavily impacted” by wildfires over the past year, Jerry Hourihan, president of AIG’s private client group, said in an interview. Every blaze is “seemingly more devastating.”
Even before the latest blazes, state regulators were growing concerned that coverage for fires is getting harder and more expensive for consumers, according to a report from California’s insurance department last year. More homes are being built in areas prone to wildfires, and climate change is creating conditions for blazes to spread faster, said Chris Folkman, senior director of product management at risk modeler RMS.
“Something is changing rapidly,” Folkman said. “There might not be the concept of the fire season anymore, because if these conditions persist, fire season could be anytime.”
AIG bolstered its wildfire protection unit after last year’s fires and has seen increased demand from homeowners for advice on prevention, according to AIG’s Stephen Poux, global head of risk management services and loss prevention in the private client group. Its recommendations include installing new ventilation systems that block out embers from fires.
Chubb, which partners with Wildfire Defense Systems Inc., said it employs methods such as setting up sprinklers to raise humidity in the area, making it less amenable to fire, according to Fran O’Brien, president of the company’s North America personal risk services division.
According to the insurer, PURE’s wildfire response team is made up of Capstone, Chloeta and Redzone firetrucks, specialized fire crew members and incident liaisons, member advocates, risk managers and licensed claims adjusters.
Earlier this week, State Farm reported it had received nearly 2,400 claims from across the state, resulting from fires that began Nov. 8. Homes made up about 75 percent of the claims reported, with the remaining claims affecting vehicles.
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