Smoke clears: Malibu fire victims face insurance, rebuilding process


Malibu resident Margo Neal did not lose her home to the ongoing wildfires that sparked in the community on Oct. 21. Neal said she is grateful not to have to rebuild her house like she did after it burnt down during the Old Topanga Fire that began on Nov. 2, 1993 and caused $500 million in total damage, according to the state Office of Emergency Services.

“In ’93 I lost everything … it was totally devastating,” she said. “My architect acquired the needed building permits then, but I recently heard people say that obtaining a building permit is a more difficult, lengthy process now.”

Bill Davis, a representative of the Insurance Information Network of California, or IINC, said the first step for fire victims to take today toward rebuilding their homes is to contact their insurance agent or company as soon as possible.

“The main thing is to get the claim process started … the biggest mistake that people make is purchasing too little disaster coverage on their insurance policy,” Davis said.

According to IINC, most people who might have lost their insurance papers in the fires will be able to request a new copy from their insurance company. Some insurance companies have reportedly set up “catastrophe teams” and hired additional adjusters from out of state to handle fire victim cases.

Malibu-based Farmers Insurance Agent Broker Mark Ball said that anyone planning to rebuild should have an insurance agent, public adjuster or attorney review their policy before filing claims.

“If it’s a total loss, Farmers will issue payment for the insured value of the home, 50 percent of their contents coverage and 12 months of their loss of use coverage without further documentation,” Ball said.

Once a person has obtained insurance claims, they should submit a building permit application to the city’s building departments. Gail Sumpter, division manager of Permit Services and Environmental and Community Development for Malibu, said applicants would then be required to meet with a permit processor to answer specific questions before a permit is issued.

Sumpter said her office is still reviewing applications for approval to rebuild three of the four homes destroyed on Malibu Road in the Jan. 8 fires that reportedly ignited on the side of Pacific Coast Highway near Bluffs Park. The fourth homeowner has reportedly not yet submitted a permit application.

“In the ideal situation, where the homeowner wants to put everything back the way it was and there are no other complications, we could be issuing a permit within months,” Sumpter said. “But we rarely see this type of situation.”

Most permit delays occur because the applicant is seeking to redesign their former building or has an old septic tank or geology that does not meet today’s standards, Sumpter said. The City of Malibu recently designated a core group of staff persons to handle all fire victim building permit applicants on a prioritized basis.

“People should contact us; we want to make sure that demolition and reconstruction is performed the right way to minimize the impact it has on the environment,” Sumpter said.

Ball said policy holders who have lost their homes should retain receipts for hotel, meals and other living expenses since these people are entitled to both an insurance claim and a tax reimbursement for up to two years of “reasonably priced” living expenses. The reimbursements are valid because of a new statewide Additional Living Expenses law that was passed in January.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order last week to waive fees for replacing certain vital records, and also directed the Franchise Tax Board and the Board of Equalization to assist fire victims with filing extensions or granting them relief from penalties and assessments.

After the most recent fires, the California State and Consumer Services Agency launched the information hotline, 800.952.5210, which the public can call to report scam or victim abuse and acquire information about reputable local contractors and loan officers.

Doug McCauley, executive officer of the California Board of Architects, said, “Building or rebuilding is a tremendous investment and it makes sense for consumers to insure they’re working with a licensed professional. You would not likely go to an unlicensed doctor, so why would you want to cut corners and take on that same risk with your home?”

Fire Rebuilding Information

€ Fire victims can apply for assistance online at or by calling 800.621.FEMA (3362). The hearing-impaired can call 800.462.7585

€ To verify an architect’s license or obtain complaint history, contact the California Architects Board at 800.991.2223 or visit

€ City staff is available at Malibu City Hall daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fire victims or persons with fire related questions should call 310.456.2489 x 241.