Fire-weary Texas residents looking to insurance

AP News
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Posted: Sep 13, 2011 7:51 PM
Fire-weary Texas residents looking to insurance

Brandon Bunker knew there would be nothing left. He knew from videos he had seen online that the home he and his wife shared with his father was a total loss and that his Jeep Grand Cherokee had been reduced to a burned-out shell.

That didn't make actually seeing the pile of gray ash, dotted only with aluminum tubing from the air conditioning ducts, any easier.

"Nothing on the property survived," said the 27-year-old cotton mill worker.

Wildfires that have burned in Central and East Texas since Labor Day have created losses estimated at $250 million, making them the costliest in the state's history, according to the Insurance Council of Texas. In Bastrop County, where the most destructive wildfire in Texas history left hundreds of families homeless, many residents are surviving on insurance money they can get for living expenses _ and on the hope that comes as claims adjustors begin to assess the damage.

Bunker's Jeep wasn't insured against fire, but the family's home was, and his father has already received a $5,000 advance check.

"I have no complaints about that," Bunker said.

The Insurance Council of Texas' loss estimate is based on claims being made for homes that have been destroyed or heavily damaged, said Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the council, a state trade association.

The Bastrop fire alone has destroyed more than 1,550 homes and charred about 45 square miles. The tally of burned homes ranks the Bastrop blaze as one of the nation's most destructive wildfires, many of which have burned in California over the last 20 years. Among them was a series of nearly two dozen fires in Southern California in 2007 that destroyed more than 3,100 homes.

Although many homeowners have policies that provide for additional living expenses, including hotel and food bills, their lives are in limbo until they can rebuild.

Insurance officials say it's hard to estimate how long that will take, but they believe the claims process should be less complicated than it is for hurricanes. Destruction from a wildfire is usually covered by a standard homeowner's policy. With hurricanes, insurance adjustors sift through the damage to determine whether it was caused by wind or flooding _ a key factor in whether a homeowner is compensated.

"That alone cuts through a lot of red tape and makes it possible to avoid skirmishes and headaches in settling these claims," Hanna said.

Joe McCormick, a spokesman for Allstate, said company representatives began accepting claims last week based on damage assessments posted online by Bastrop County, but the process ultimately can't be completed until property can be evaluated in person. The recovery process has also been complicated because so many homes appear to be total losses, making it unlikely that residents have inventories of their valuables, McCormick said.

"That can create some complexity," he said. "But it's a fairly common situation, and our adjustors are used to working with customers in that situation."

David Rydell, Allstate's field claims manager, said the Bastrop fire was so hot and fast-moving that many people's homes were destroyed completely, not just partially charred.

"A lot of people have homes that burned down to a slab and vehicles that melted to the tires," Rydell said. "With a lot of fires, you'd see at least some walls or some part of the structures standing, but that's not what happened here."

Because the fire happened over the Labor Day weekend, many customers were out of town and therefore lost dogs, cats, horses and vehicles they otherwise might have been able to save, Rydell said. He said there's no consensus about whether clients intend to stay and rebuild on the same land or move away.

Kevin Price is among those planning to stay. He lost an uninsured mobile home but plans to erect a tent on the property to keep looters away.

"My guns burned up," he said, "so I can't shoot anyone."

Others still haven't even been back to their homes.

Ralph Sluder, 47, knew his home had been destroyed after seeing a neighbor's Facebook post. He planned to see it for himself on Wednesday.

"I haven't even gone and looked yet," he said. "There's nothing that can be done, so I'm not in a hurry."