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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRESTORMS

Dangers Serve as Coverage Reminders

Homeowners should inventory belongings for insurance. After a fire, they are advised to be alert and handle any problems quickly.

October 27, 2003|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

For most insurance people, the Southern California wildfires have not struck as close to home as they did over the weekend for Candysse Miller.

When fire neared her north Rancho Cucamonga home Friday night, Miller, executive director of the Insurance Industry Network of California, grabbed her digital camera and went room to room, taking inventory of the house and family belongings, finishing the task Saturday.

"I had to walk the walk, not just talk the talk," Miller said Sunday after the flames moved in another direction. "There's nothing like watching a 50-foot wall of flame to put the fear of God into you."

So far, the wildfires have destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes. With 7.2 million California homes at high risk of wind-driven flames, according to a study by the California Department of Forestry, homeowners need to consider the fire threat and their insurance coverage whether they have been affected or not, Miller and others say.

If they have suffered a loss because of the fires, homeowners should contact their insurance agent or their carrier's service number as soon as possible.

Several have set up special numbers: Allstate, for example, is at (800) 54 STORM; State Farm is at (800) SF CLAIM; and Farmer's Group is at (800) 435-7764, or for Spanish speakers (877) 732-5266.

Many insurers have adjusters on the scene, staying out of harm's way and waiting only for the official OK to move into the burned-out neighborhoods.

For homeowners staying at a friend's home or an emergency center, Miller suggested they can start the claims process online.

Later, homeowners should be wary about accepting business cards from contractors and public adjusters, and should ask for ID even from their own company's adjuster. After Hurricane Andrew, con artists posed as company adjusters.

Those homeowners who have escaped the current wildfires should make a copy of their policy and keep it outside the home, perhaps in a safe deposit box.

Check the details. Most insurance companies no longer offer "guaranteed replacement" with no limit, instead capping coverage based on the insurer's estimated cost of rebuilding the property and replacing the contents. That can fall far below a home's current market value. Some insurers, like the Automobile Club of Southern California, still offer guaranteed replacement, said AAA spokeswoman Marie Montgomery.

Homeowners should inventory their home's contents, perhaps with photos as Miller did, and receipts or item prices.

Douglas Heller, senior consumer advocate for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a watchdog group, said homeowners should contact the state Insurance Department immediately if they have problems getting claims settled -- and be sure to get all communication with carriers in writing. The department can be reached at (800) 927-HELP, or online at www.insurance.ca.gov.

"People need to watch out for delaying and low-balling tactics by the industry, where they string out the process until the homeowner accepts any offer," Heller said. He said his group has seen a surge in complaints in the last 18 months alleging that insurers arbitrarily dropped customers who filed claims, or raised their rates or deductibles.

"People pay premiums all their lives so they have complete protection at a time like this," he said. "These victims should not be victimized again."

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