From the Publisher: Fire Facts Come In

Arnold G. York

The fire facts are beginning to come in and although nothing is official yet, it looks like the City of Malibu lost about 460 plus homes in this fire and another 150 plus structures like garages, pool cabanas, guest houses and such. Neighborhood by neighborhood it looks approximately like this:

  • Pt. Dume lost more than 100 homes

  • Kanan Road lost more than 30 homes in the city, many more in the county

  • Malibu High/Malibu Park area lost 160-180 homes

  • Malibu West lost more than 100 homes

  • Malibu East and North lost about 50 homes

Additionally, I understand there were at least another 200 or so homes lost in County Malibu—and that doesn’t count Calabasas, Agoura, Agoura Hills, Hidden Hills, etc. The LA Times and Zillow put the loss in Malibu at about $1.6 billion, which I suspect may be low. I’ve been told rebuilding today, for a midrange Malibu home, will probably run $400 to $600 per square foot. Again, that’s for the mid-sized Malibu home, not a mansion.

I’ve been told the fire insurance carriers are in shock and don’t want to write anything new—for now, anyway. However, we’ve seen this before and what has happened in earlier fires is that they almost all come back in a few months. After all, large areas of Malibu have already burned out. (It takes years for the entire fuel load to build up again, meaning the burned areas are probably not going to be vulnerable again for a number of years.) But all of those insurance carriers have taken a terrible beating this year and it’s an absolute certainty that fire insurance rates are going to go up—probably substantially—to cover their losses and hedge against the future.

The next order of business is getting all the burned-out home sites cleaned up and pretty much stripped bare. The job is more complex than it appears. There are lots of synthetics in modern homes and many of those components, when destroyed in a 3000 degree Fahrenheit fire, leave residues of ash and soot that are toxic and have to be handled as toxic waste. This impacts all the burned out homes and all the other houses around those homes. I understand the county has taken charge of hiring a contractor to clear all the sites, and the city is going to be part of that program. It’s not yet clear who pays for what and what FEMA will cover, but we will give you all that info as it becomes available and clear. Many of you who didn’t burn out but live in the areas that did burn may have some significant ash and soot problems, and strong odors. Smoke can get into the paint, furniture and flooring, and cleaning it up can be a major expense. Report it to your fire insurance carrier and don’t let them just send out a kid with a big vacuum. Make sure the air is tested before you sign off. That’s what the county does after it clears the sites. It tests to make sure the site is really clean. Sometimes, a strong vacuum is all you need, but sometimes, if the smoke is in the walls and furniture, you may have to strip the paint off and repaint, reupholster or buy new furniture. It’s not cheap either. Some are seeing cleanup costs of $15,000 to $35,000, depending on the severity of the smoke infiltration.

From what we’ve been told at the Operation Recovery meetings, certain things are beginning to emerge. A number of people didn’t evacuate and stayed to fight the fire. They did it with garden hoses and shovels and just plain earth. Many of them are the heroes who risked their own lives for their neighbors. In time, we will identify them so they can be thanked properly. Without them, many more houses would have burned.

Sadly, what didn’t happen is that there was absolutely minimal to no fire engines in the neighborhoods. There was no what they call “fire front follow-up,” which would appear to be a standard firefighting procedure. Maybe they didn’t have the engines. Maybe they didn’t have the troops. Maybe their planning was too rigid and inflexible. Maybe it was a command failure. We don’t know. But one of the things Operation Recovery is going to do is its own investigation. There are enough retired fire captains living in this town to help us do an independent investigation to find out what happened, and issue a public report.

We are also going to rate the performance of the insurance companies who write fire insurance in Malibu and environs. You never really know how good or bad your company is until you have a loss. Then they’re either helpful or antagonistic. They’re fast or they drag their feet. Their adjusters are competent and fair or just the opposite. They accept what you show them or they bombard you with requests for more information. In time, we will interview the members of Operation Recovery and issue our report cards in a public report. I’m hopeful, but if any of the companies are particularly egregious, we’ll just start giving television interviews, even make the rounds of the talk shows.

As you may discern from my tone, after a disaster, your relationship with your insurance company may become a bit adversarial. The same with the city or county, building and planning departments, and the fire department. I hope this isn’t the case, but we will all be watching. 

P.S. The next operation Recovery Meeting is Sunday, Dec. 9, at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue from 2-4 p.m. We have experts coming who can help you walk through the FEMA process as well as help you to understand your fire policy, your insurance company and how you negotiate with all of them… See you Sunday.