Are There Ways to Mitigate Property Damage from Wildfires?

California’s fires are finally under control, but residents and property owners will continue to feel the impact for some time.

With California’s two catastrophic fires finally contained, insurers are beginning to assess damages, according to Tami Casey, Northern California regional director for Interstate Restoration, which provides restorative services for commercial properties following natural disasters. But it will be some time before work to replace structures lost in these fires will get underway, as rebuilding from the Santa Rosa fires last fall is still in progress.

Property losses from the Camp Fire and Wooslsey are estimated at up to $19 billion, reports Irvine, Calif.-based Corelogic, a global real estate information, analytics and advisory firm. Accurate property valuations are critical for owners to ensure they have adequate funding for replacing properties, as in wildfires homes and businesses are often completely lost, says Corelogic Principal Tom Larsen.

The company’s U.S. wildfire model, a loss model designed to estimate probably damages and insured losses from brushfire breakouts, incorporates more than 3.3 million stochastic events to estimate the value of burn and smoke damage.

Estimated property loss from the Camp Fire, which destroyed the city of Paradise in Northern California, totals $8 billion to $9 billion for residential structures and $3 billion to $4 billion for commercial buildings. The town basically wiped out the entire town of more than 26,000 residents, including the main street business district.

The wind-whipped Woolsey fire, so named because it started in Woolsey Canyon, spread from Agoura Hills over the Santa Monica Mountains to Malibu, destroying residences valued at up to $5.5 billion and commercial properties valued at nearly $500 million.

Loss estimates include replacement costs for both the physical structures and their contents, as well as the value of lost business by commercial property owners, though this is difficult to quantify, notes Larsen.

California’s efforts to increase its housing supply have also suffered a huge setback over the last two years, Larsen says, noting that approximately15,000 residential units were lost in the two fires. In addition, more than 10,000 commercial buildings and homes, including 5,600 homes in the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties alone, were damaged or lost in large wildfires last year, according to state data.

“The housing shortage just took a step backwards,” says Larsen. “Considering the state’s general housing shortage, this is a big subtraction, a huge setback.” He notes, however, that with updated building codes, newly constructed homes and commercial buildings should more fire-resistant than those replaced.

In the meantime, with such a high number of homes lost in the fires, lodging and temporary housing options are at capacity, so many displaced fire victims are staying with friends, Casey notes.

The fires left 82 people dead and about 500 more were still missing as of Friday, Nov. 23. California’s air quality, which has been declared the “worst in the world,” is another tragic consequence of the fires, according to Casey. “This is unhealthy for everyone, but especially for immune-compromised individuals, such as the elderly and people with asthma,” she says.

Interstate Restoration currently has about 1,500 negative air machines, or air scrubbers, employed at seniors housing centers, distribution centers, office buildings and retail properties. Air scrubbers pull internal air through filters to remove soot and other pollutants, allowing businesses to reopen and provide the community with goods and services without further disruption. Casey suggests that this helps to return a sense of normalcy to the community.

She suggests that commercial property owners should partner with a restoration company that understands their portfolio prior to a catastrophic event, which may help mitigate damages and loss of business or expedite replacement of the structures. Based on the location and type of business, a restoration company assesses risk potential, develops an emergency plan and provides a disaster walk-through based on the portfolio’s risk exposure.

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