On Sept. 12, 2015, the Valley Fire swept through Lake County, burning through 70,000 acres of woodland, killing four people and torching 1,280 structures, including the Carolynn Spezza's home in Middletown. Now, two years into the recovery process, 75-80 percent of the structures that burned have not been rebuilt.
Adrian Diaz woke up about 1:30 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 9, to a neighbor pounding on his door. A firestorm was sweeping toward his house on Tomki Road in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley. Diaz and his wife had minutes to load their three kids and dog into their car and drive away.
“Everything in front, behind and around was a 20-30-foot wall of fire,” Diaz said. As they drove through flames his car’s bumper melted in the heat. “It was very, very scary making it out. Cars aren’t designed to drive through fire.”
Nine people died in the Redwood Valley blaze, all of them within a few square miles of the Diaz family home, which burned to the ground.
“Basically, we’re still homeless,” he said. “I mean we’re bouncing around with friends and family but, you know, it’s difficult.”
Diaz said the past month has been a roller coaster. First, he felt shock and adrenaline, then gratitude for his family’s survival, then guilt and sorrow, followed by anger.
“Now it’s a transition into the rebuild stage piece, like I’ve just got… we’ve just got to move on,” he said. “You know it’s like we’ve got to get back to a sense of normalcy.”
The first step in that rebuild stage, said Diaz, has been calling his insurance company to start the claims process.
That, he said, has been its own kind of hardship.
State of emergency
Just days after the wildfires ripped through Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, California Department of Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones declared a state of emergency to allow insurers to bring in out-of-state adjusters. Jones also asked insurers to sign on to an expedited claims process that allowed policyholders to get money upfront for four months of additional living expenses and 25 percent of their policy limits for personal property.
“People lost everything, including every piece of paper they had,” Jones said. “And we wanted to make sure insurers were cutting checks right away to help people get back on their feet.”
But Diaz said he didn’t get any money from his insurance company for weeks.
“Even though we had a total loss of everything, they expected us to live off of gift cards from the community,” he said. “For 25 days we got nothing.”
Diaz said he found out about the expedited claims process, which his insurer had signed on to, only by calling the California Department of Insurance. Now he says his insurer has agreed to give him the four months of living expenses.
“If you call them on it, they’ll eventually bend,” he said. “But it’s like pulling teeth. It’s struggling for every dollar.”
Diaz’s experience isn’t unique.
Disaster after the disaster
This all sounds familiar to Lake County resident Carolynn Spezza, who is still trying to complete the process that thousands of wildfire survivors like Diaz are just beginning.
On Sept. 12, 2015, the Valley Fire swept through Lake County, burning through 70,000 acres of woodland, killing four people and torching 1,280 structures, including the Spezzas’ home in Middletown. Now, two years into the recovery process, 75-80 percent of the structures that burned have not been rebuilt.
After the fire, Spezza said, she and her husband were determined to rebuild. So, they started tackling the first step: detailing the home they’d lost for their insurance company.
Spezza flips through a navy-blue binder that includes about 100 pages of architectural drawings, photos of light fixtures and images of their custom cabinets, along with photos of their two young daughters playing in the garden.
“So we did this very professionally with all the details they would possibly need,” she said. “We were totally honest. Like page after page after page.”
But Spezza said that by May 2016 — eight months after the fire — her insurance adjuster still hadn’t done an estimate on what it would cost to rebuild the home. Even more frustrating, Spezza said, was when her insurance agent would simply not respond to her emails for months.
According to the California insurance code, insurers must respond to consumer requests within 15 days.
“I wonder how much of it is just them wearing you down,” she said. ” ‘Cause it’s maddening.”
Corresponding with her insurer and filling out paperwork became all-consuming. Spezza stopped working as a research associate to focus on the insurance claim full time.
“So, meanwhile, the backdrop of this is our girls are dying to move back home,” she said. “And our next-door neighbor, they’re the first in the county to rebuild, literally. So, they keep asking us, like, “Why is their house going up and not ours?’ ”
Finally, the family gave up the idea of rebuilding, hired lawyers to help them get a chunk of their policy and bought a replacement home. But she said they still haven’t gotten the money from their personal property that burned.
“One of our concerns is if people like us that are really good at paperwork can’t get our policies, then what are other people that are vulnerable, that don’t even know what their rights are, how are they being taken advantage of?” she said.
Spezza said she is going into mediation with her insurance company next month. She also made a short video about their insurance ordeal, appealing to lawmakers to make the insurance process easier for survivors.
Complicated claims after unprecedented disaster
Many policyholders who lost homes to wildfire have no complaints about how their insurance company is handling post-disaster claims.
Brett Donnells, who lost his home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, said his insurer has been great. The first day that residents were allowed back into their properties, his adjuster was there to start the claims process.
“So we actually have everything in motion now,” he said.
Tim Foster, a catastrophe claims specialist with State Farm, said part of the reason the process takes so long is because insurers are working with customers to get the full limits on their policies.
“It can be challenging,” he said. “And it really involves a lot of conversation with our customers and just making sure that we’re covering everything that you’d like.”
Foster said insurers will work with whatever resources their policyholders have — including photographs, blueprints or just talking to them — to make sure they are taking into account all the aspects of the claim that they are owed.
A spokesman for the insurance industry, Jeffrey Brewer, responded to KQED’s request for comment via email.
“Insurers recognize the urgent need to help people repair and replace damaged or lost property, and work hard to ensure the claims handling process is as smooth and easy as possible,” he said. “The rebuilding process after a disaster is complicated and requires some patience as all of the various parties involved work together to get residents back to normal.”
But some consumers, like Adrian Diaz of Mendocino, continue to have difficulties.
“I don’t want to be that guy who complains,” Diaz said, “I wanted to work with my insurance company, but basically I was left with no choice but to file a complaint.”
In the first month of the 2017 Northern California wildfires, 53 complaints were filed with the California Department of Insurance. The issues that consumers have with insurers can have a big impact on survivors’ ability to rebuild and recover.
Insurers put on notice to obey the law
“We’re here to say this needs to stop,” Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said at a press conference this week. Jones put insurers on notice that they must abide by California state law following a disaster. The announcement came in the wake of multiple reports that some insurers were giving policyholders bad information.
Mendocino County resident Jon Kennedy did not lose his home in the wildfires, but a number of his friends did. Kennedy isn’t an insurance expert, but he is a public policy nerd and good at navigating complex legalese. So he reached out to his friends and asked if he could help by making insurance calls on their behalf.
“In all reality the insurance adjuster’s job is to, you know, not rip anyone off,” he said. “But to settle for as little as they possibly can, that’s the cynic in me and the mother bear in me to protect friends and family.”
The adjuster told Kennedy that the insurance company would pay for family living expenses only up until 30 days after a reasonable settlement, but California law says insurers have to pay this for two full years following a disaster. When Kennedy reminded him of this, the adjuster agreed to help the family out.
According to the California Department of Insurance, insurers also incorrectly told fire survivors they must rebuild in the same place to take advantage of the full amount of their policy and gave them unlawful deadlines to collect on their claims.
Jones said the problem may arise from out-of-state adjusters who are not familiar with California law, but he said it is vital that consumers get correct information so they can make decisions about how to rebuild.
“If this persists we would encourage consumers to contact us,” he said. “We will be opening up formal complaints against the insurance companies. Ultimately, the insurance code provides for sanctions, including penalties.”
Jones said his objective is to make sure that this is being done right at the front end.