Responding to Wildfires

Nina Mehta
PURE Member since 2016

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Eight years ago, Nina Mehta moved into a new home in Santa Rosa, California. She loved the home for its 360-degree views of the golf course, the lake and the city and because it represented the start of a new chapter in her life. It was located near her office, where she works as President and Co-Owner of NeilMed Pharmaceuticals, a leading manufacturer and supplier of drug-free nasal and sinus-relief products. Her home, like those of many of our members, was an extension of her identity, filled with objects that held significant meaning to her from different phases in her life.

The Tubbs Fire started just a few miles away from Ms. Mehta’s home last October. Strong winds, sometimes exceeding 50 miles per hour1, pushed it downhill, quickly spreading burning embers across the dry landscape. Ms. Mehta woke to the sound of her dog barking, the smell of smoke and a police officer at her door instructing her to evacuate immediately. With only the clothes on her back, she took her dog and purse and fled.

The next morning, she learned that virtually every home in her neighborhood and the surrounding area had been burned to the ground—hers included. Photographs, her art collection and many other items of high sentimental value were completely destroyed.

Ms. Mehta did have a safe in which she kept many valuable pieces of jewelry. The safe was recovered, but the jewelry she wore every day, including one ring valued at more than $80,000, had been left out on her dresser that evening. Ms. Mehta was certain they were gone.

 Nina Mehta's rings uncovered by PURE General Adjuster Andy Brotherton. 

Nina Mehta's rings uncovered by PURE General Adjuster Andy Brotherton. 

PURE General Adjuster Andy Brotherton met Ms. Mehta at her property to survey the damage. “When I am working with our members following devastating events like this, the one thing I always try to gauge is whether there are items that seem to hold more meaning to them. For Ms. Mehta, it was her jewelry,” said Andy.

As Ms. Mehta took in the sight of her home, Andy began sifting through the rubble. After nearly an hour, he found a bracelet. It was not one of the more sentimental pieces, but the discovery did help to direct his search. He called in a crew to help sift through the ashes in search of more. The team found some of Ms. Mehta’s cherished rings and earrings along with two Ganesh statues, which were sent to be restored to their original condition.

“I was, and continue to be, overwhelmed by the loss—the loss of my home and everything I had to leave behind. Rather than question me or give me a list of next steps, Andy let me come to terms with it all while he went off to dig through the damage. To do that for me, giving me that time and helping me find my belongings, was such a compassionate, personal touch,” said Ms. Mehta.

With Ms. Mehta’s home completely destroyed, she was faced with the decision of whether or not to rebuild. PURE’s Homeowners policy provides members in situations like this with options and flexibility. Realizing that this was a decision Ms. Mehta was not immediately prepared to make, PURE paid her the full amount it would cost to rebuild her home as it was before, so that when she was ready to decide, she had the financial flexibility to do so.

 Remaining property of PURE Member Nina Mehta's home after the Tubbs Fire destroyed the community. 

Remaining property of PURE Member Nina Mehta's home after the Tubbs Fire destroyed the community. 

 

PURE’s Cash Settlement Option.

With PURE, members can choose to reconstruct their home to its original state or receive a cash settlement for the full amount it would cost to rebuild or replace their home and belongings—regardless of whether they actually do so—with no deductions, up to the policy’s limit. 

 

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Wildfire Season in Review  

 

California’s 2017 wildfire season was one of the most severe in the state’s history. From January through December, over 9,000 fires burned across more than 1.2 million acres. The largest of the fires, the Thomas Fire, burned nearly 300,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Though much smaller at only 36,000 acres, the Tubbs Fire in northern San Diego county destroyed over 5,600 structures—more than half of the total structures lost statewide. This was a time of notable loss for the individuals and communities impacted.

 

Response Efforts

Throughout the season, PURE tracked wildfire threats across the country to help our members protect their homes and families. Ultimately, fire conditions led us to deploy wildfire response trucks and crews in Oregon, Montana, Utah, Washington State and California. The resources we use to defend against a fire vary based on the fire’s size, severity and proximity to our members’ homes.

During the California wildfires, our response teams inspected properties, moved combustible materials away from structures and if warranted and possible, treated the property with a fire-retardant gel or foam to help reduce the risk of ignition from direct flame or embers. In some cases, we sprayed a fire retardant directly onto unmitigated fuel surrounding the members’ homes. In some locations, the fires were so severe that crews had to double up in order to both protect one another and extinguish flames.

PURE Member Advocates® also made outbound calls to all members who insured a home within five miles of the fires’ anticipated paths. This established a personal point of contact in case the member needed to reach us for any reason and allowed us to inquire about the member’s well-being, understand more about the state of their property and direct our response resources more effectively.

Outbound calls are a standard aspect of our response to active fires. Very little information is typically available to residents during a fire; road access is usually cut off, and the only people who are able to gather information are those who are fighting to protect the homes. For this reason, we attempt to remove as much uncertainty from the situation as we can by keeping our members apprised of what is happening at their property. When possible, we communicate the fire’s distance from a member’s residence, where the home stands in the fire’s path and possible response scenarios based on the fire’s anticipated movement.

We also sent a PURE Situation Room alert to members in affected areas of California, providing last-minute readiness advice, offering to help them find alternative accommodations and issuing guidance from PURE’s Haven Art Group on safeguarding fine art collections.

PURE’s California Underwriting Results

As an insurance company, PURE exists to help you recover from loss. However, as a member-owned reciprocal, we have a responsibility to the membership to do all we can to reduce the frequency and severity of claims.

For this reason, PURE’s underwriting criteria in California is conservative. Our team considers the wildfire exposure for every California location we insure based on the type, size and density of the fuel in the immediate area. Then we separately assess the threat of wildfire to that specific location based on its surroundings, showing preference to homes located at the center of large communities—versus those in communities of just a few homes—and away from the wildland border. Preferred communities are composed of other homes built with fire-resistive construction materials and feature multiple access points for emergency responders.

PURE is careful to manage the total insured value of our exposures in high-risk, high-demand areas. We also work hard to build a geographically diverse book of business throughout California to reduce our risk during any single event, wildfire or other. This approach served the membership well in 2017, as PURE’s loss results were far less disruptive than the high net worth property and casualty industry experienced overall.

Reduce Your Risk for Wildfire Damage

The first, most important step in wildfire mitigation is to create and maintain defensible space around your home’s perimeter. This critical tactic can slow or stop the spread of a wildfire and help to prevent spot fires caused by flying embers. This does not mean you have to forgo a beautifully landscaped yard; defensible space involves strategically clearing and placing vegetation in order to produce a buffer between your home and other structures and the grass, trees, shrubs or any wildland area that surrounds them.

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As an added layer of protection, PURE members in wildfire-prone areas are enrolled in our Wildfire Mitigation Program. The program includes pre-fire and emergency response services intended to reduce, or even prevent, loss from wildfire.

1.     https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/21/us/california-fire-damage-map.html
2.     https://www.insurancebusinessmag.com/us/news/breaking-news/heroic-adjuster-digs-through-wildfiredevastated-home-to-recover-precious-jewelry-90264.aspx