How much California wildland fire could cost to insurer ?

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    A massive wildfire roaring through mountains north of Los Angeles forced some firefighters to retreat on Monday as the toll of engulfed homes rose sharply and flames menaced Mount Wilson, a broadcasting hub and site of a historic observatory.

    Fire officials said at least 71 dwellings had been destroyed since the blaze erupted last Wednesday — 53 clustered in the foothill community of La Crescenta on the northern fringe of suburban Los Angeles and 18 others first reported as lost on Sunday.

    As of Monday evening, a total of 6,300 homes throughout the fire zone were under evacuation orders, authorities said.

    The so-called Station Fire more than doubled in size as it burned out of control for a sixth day, charring 105,000 acres, up from 42,000 acres late on Sunday, and sending up towering palls of smoke that fouled the air for miles (km) around.

    Most of the large fires with significant property damage have occurred in California, where some of the fastest developing counties are in forest areas.

    Nine of the ten largest wildfires, in terms of insured property losses, occurred prior to 2007, according to ISO data. A 1991 wildfire in Oakland, California tops the list with $ $2,687 in insured losses in 2008 dollars. In October 2007 a series of wildfires broke out across Southern California, damaging thousands of homes and causing widespread evacuations. The largest of these fires, the October 21 Witch fire, resulted in $1.4 billion in insured losses and was the second most damaging wildfire since 1970, in 2008 dollars. In 2008, there were no wildfires that met ISO’s catastrophe criteria in terms of the number of policyholders and insurers affected.

    Ten most costly wildland fires in the United States


    Top ten catastrophic wildland fires in California

    Top ten catastrophic wildland fires in California

    In the last year, some big insurance companies have won approvals from regulators for premium hikes ranging from 4% to 7%. And a round of requests for similar increases has been submitted to the state insurance commissioner.

    In a state parched by a three-year drought, wildfires are at least partly to blame for the price increases, industry officials and even some consumer advocates agree.

    “We seem to be having year after year of [major wildfire] events, when before they occurred every six or seven years,” said Sam Sorich, president of the California Assn. of Insurance Cos., a lobbying group in Sacramento.

    But Amy Bach, executive director of the San Francisco-based consumer group United Policyholders, said she was more concerned about the quality of the coverage than its cost. She said more fire victims could find that they didn’t have enough coverage to pay the entire cost of rebuilding their homes.

    “My big concern is that the insurance companies are going to use these fires as an excuse to increase their rates, and the underinsurance problem is going to be the same as it ever was,” Bach said. “People are going to be paying more for less.”

    With an estimated 15 million homes statewide, even a tremendously destructive wildfire like the blaze that destroyed 3,000 San Diego homes in 2003 shouldn’t cause a massive surge in the cost of insuring a home, experts say.