When California Dreaming Becomes a Nightmare

by Mark Goldwich

“All the leaves are brown” as the song goes, only now they’re on fire. This is when “California dreaming” can turn into a real nightmare. If you haven’t been watching a lot of news, you may not know California has been experiencing a severe drought for several years, and is currently battling huge fires covering thousands of acres.  While wildfires like this occur yearly, and take place all over the country, whether caused naturally (usually by lightning), by arson, or by human error, these current fires are particularly noteworthy due to their size and the length of time they have been raging, most likely due at least in part to the drought.

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According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (http://calfire.ca.gov/), there are currently about 15 wildfires in California being fought by about 12,000 firefighters. They note that typically, less than 10% of all fires within their jurisdiction are caused by lightning. Cal Fire estimates that fire suppression expenditures will exceed $200 million dollars this year (well short of the $524 million spent in 2008). And so far this year, Cal Fire estimates nearly 4,400 fires have burned about 118,000 acres within their area of control.  

Regardless of how the fires began, stoked by the combination of high levels of fuel (dry vegetation caused by drought) and high winds, the results have been devastating. Wildlife has been killed and their habitats burned, homes have been threatened or burned, and valuable resources are being expended expended to fight the fires.

A few weeks ago I watched as news teams broke into regular programming to show live footage of cars and trucks burning on a California freeway, abandoned by drivers who could see the flames approaching, but who were unable to drive to safety due to the amount of traffic. It was the first time I had seen this many vehicles caught up in a wildfire like this. Luckily, all of the drivers escaped with their lives. Many of their vehicles did not fare as well, burning in HD for the entire country to see. Homes and other structures are also being destroyed, but fortunately, not in relatively dramatic numbers compared to past years. At least 43 homes were reportedly destroyed in just one of the fires near Sacramento recently.

While touring one of the areas affected by fire recently, California Governor Jerry Brown took the opportunity to blame Republican presidential candidates, suggesting the fires were a product of climate change, and asking “What the hell are you going to do about it?” Perhaps it was a rhetorical question, or maybe it was because Republican candidates don’t take Governor Brown seriously, but I don’t recall any of the candidates responding.

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As we see reports of firefighters heroically battling these blazing fires, it was interesting to learn that the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation employs nearly 4,000 volunteer inmate firemen (and women) to help combat wildfires, more than any other state in the country. This not only allows a larger force to wrest control of the fires, it provides a significant cost savings to the state’s taxpayers, as inmate fire crews are paid only a fraction of the minimum wage that non-inmate civilian firefighters and smoke jumpers get paid. But not all inmates qualify for the program, including those convicted of arson (good thinking, California!).

No sooner do these crews get a fire under control, when we hear of evacuees being allowed back into their neighborhoods to assess the damage.  Some find total devastation, while others find their homes miraculously spared. For those whose homes were reduced to rubble, they have to start from scratch. Usually all that remains of a home after such a fire is the concrete slab and the chimney (both of which - while clearly recognizable - are typically damaged beyond repair).

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If they happen to have insurance that covers fire, they still have a long, tough road ahead. Many insurance policies now place a cap on Additional Living Expenses (the amount of money you must spend due to the loss, over and above what you normally spend – typically, these include things like a rental home in addition to your mortgage, additional fuel or travel expenses if your temporary lodging is further away from work or school, and other increased costs as a result of the loss). Many policies now have higher deductibles, or even percentage deductibles, for all losses, not just hurricanes. And then you have to hope your insurance company will be prompt and fair when adjusting your claim.

In any event, if you have to suffer through a loss by wildfire, you will be spending many long hours over the following weeks, months or years to present your claim.  This will include proving what you owned, what was damaged, and what it was worth. Think about it, if everything you ever owned was reduced to ashes, could you remember it all? And even if you could remember it all, would you be able to prove to a stranger that it existed to begin with, and that you owned it, and what condition it was in? Now try all this while under extreme stress, or even depression. How many hoops do you suppose it takes for the average person to jump through before they give up on part (or all) of their claim under these conditions? And how many hoops do insurance companies have at their disposal? In my experience, I can tell you insurance companies have an average of one more hoop than the average claim victim is willing to endure.

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This is why I not only recommend you hire a professional public adjuster to handle your claim.  We are not subject to the same emotions and stresses as you, and we have the experience and tools to better follow through on your claim.  You also need to fully document your home and all your possessions in advance of any disaster. You will be going through more than enough stress when disaster strikes, so you might as well take measures in advance that will make your recovery easier.

And finally, in one of life’s great ironies, some of the fire-ravaged areas of California are expecting thunderstorms shortly that could drastically help douse the fires, but also tend to create lightning with the potential to spark even more fires.

Here’s hoping California’s nightmare of a fire season is soon put to rest.

Mark Goldwich is president of Gold Star Adjusters, a group of public insurance adjusters dedicated to helping citizens get the maximum settlement for any insurance claim.   


  1. While California is currently the poster child for wildfires, a few years back it was Florida that was ablaze. Forest fires can happen anywhere.

  2. I remember when Jacksonville's skies were filled with smoke from the fires in Southern Georgia. How scary...and sad for California!

  3. I like the comment about hoops at the end. It's nice to know that a Public Adjuster can help when you have to deal with an insurance company.