Insurance bill from California wildfires hits $9B US

Insurance claims from last month's California wildfires have already reached $9 billion US and are expected to increase, the state's insurance commissioner announced Wednesday.

This year's blazes were the costliest in state history, says insurance commissioner

A firefighter battles flames from the Camp Fire as it consumes a home in Magalia, Calif., in October. Insurance costs from the Camp Fire, which ravaged parts of Northern California, as well as two other fires that scorched southern parts of the state this fall, have so far reached $9 billion US. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

Insurance claims from last month's California wildfires have already reached $9 billion US and are expected to increase, the state's insurance commissioner announced Wednesday.

About $7 billion in claims are from the Camp Fire that destroyed the Northern California city of Paradise and killed at least 86 people, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in at least a century.

The remaining costs come as a result of the Woolsey and Hill fires, which ravaged Southern California.

Collectively, the fires destroyed or damaged more than 20,000 structures, with the vast majority in and around Paradise. On Tuesday, state and federal authorities estimated it will cost at least $3 billion to clear debris.

"The devastating wildfires of 2018 were the deadliest and costliest wildfire catastrophes in California's history," Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said, adding that "behind the insured loss numbers are thousands of people who've been traumatized by unfathomable loss."

There are more than 28,000 claims for residential personal property, nearly 2,000 from commercial property and 9,400 in auto and other claims for the fires.

That's well above the number of claims filed following a series of fires that tore through Northern California's wine country last year. Losses from those fires were initially pegged at $3.3 billion but eventually grew to $10 billion.

In this aerial photo, a burned neighborhood is seen in Paradise, Calif., on Thursday. The Camp Fire — aided by strong, dry winds — destroyed the town of 27,000 people in October. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

The cleanup costs for last month's fires also will far surpass the record expense of $1.3 billion the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers spent on debris removal in Northern California in 2017.

Mark Ghilarducci, the director of California's Office of Emergency Services, said the state will manage cleanup contracts this time. Last year, hundreds of Northern California homeowners complained that contractors — who were paid by weight — hauled away too much dirt and damaged unbroken driveways, sidewalks and pipes. The agency spent millions repairing that damage.

Ghilarducci said the state will hire auditors and monitors to watch over the debris removal in hopes of cutting down on the number of over-eager contractors.

"We learned a great number of things," last year, Ghilarducci said.

He said the U.S. Corps of Engineers was asked to lead the effort last year because state resources were stretched thin after responding to more than a dozen wildfires. This year, he said state officials can manage the cleanup and costs will be shared among state, federal and local authorities.

Cleanup is expected to begin in January and take about a year to complete, Ghilarducci said. State and federal officials are currently removing hazardous household materials from the damaged properties.