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Local News

Gap Fire Sparks Concerns About Adequate Homeowners Insurance

Agents set up shop at the Red Cross shelter to field the burning question about coverage: Is it enough?

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State Farm agent Ed Attlesey has been working out of a mobile claims office at the Santa Barbara Red Cross shelter at San Marcos High School. “People are looking to update policies,” he says. (Mollie Helmuth / Noozhawk photo)

As the South Coast reels from what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared Thursday to be a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County, the question many residents are confronting is: Do I have the right insurance coverage?

Insurance agents are aware of the effect natural disasters have on community security, and with the Gap Fire being the first large fire threatening neighborhoods since 1990’s Painted Cave Fire, they are busy tackling questions.

Agents from the State Farm and Allstate insurance agencies are parked in trailers at the American Red Cross, Santa Barbara County Chapter shelter at San Marcos High School and are open to policy discussion. The trailers act as mobile claims offices for homeowners.

“People are looking to update policies; mostly, it’s the amount of coverage someone has on their home,” State Farm agent Ed Attlesey said. “Do they have enough to replace the home if it is destroyed?”

Attlesey has been working from the school parking lot for the past few days, helping customers and answering questions at the twice-daily updates the shelter organized. He says that in Santa Barbara, most homeowners lack proper coverage to completely rebuild their home in the case of a disaster.

Even with people paying extensively for homeowners insurance, Attlesey says, many never check to make sure it will completely protect their assets.

“Check in to make sure what you have is right,” he said. “When (the fire is) in your backyard, that is not the time to become aware.”

Also on site is Allstate communications consultant Jim Klapthor. He said the trailer operation has two functions: to help customers and to internally relieve the inundation of appointments made at local insurance agencies.

Klapthor says that although customers may want to go straight to their personal agent, there are other options.

“They can dial up toll-free numbers and speak with national claims reps, or they can come to the mobile claims office,” he said.

Getting proper coverage requires a proactive approach from the homeowner and the insurance agent. Replacement cost coverage means the agency will replace everything at today’s costs with no depreciation, but homeowners are encouraged to work with a contractor to get general rebuilding costs.

In the case of mass destruction as in a fire or flood, oftentimes homeowners face what Attlesey calls “a contractor’s market,” in which building costs rise because demand and necessity go up. While agencies often include extra coverage to account for those variances, getting a professional evaluation is key.

Not every home is insurable by companies such as Allstate or State Farm, with or without a fire looming. When a homeowner applies for coverage, an agent visits the property and conducts a checklist appraisal to decide its eligibility.

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With most evacuees allowed to return home, workers pack up the Santa Barbara Red Cross shelter at San Marcos High School. (Mollie Helmuth / Noozhawk photo)

Sometimes the deciding factors aren’t easily fixed, such as difficult-to-access roads or proximity to a forest. However, Attlesey says clearing brush from around a home is the “first and best thing you can do” and can make the difference in whether a company will insure it.

“It’s expensive,” he said of clearing dense brush, “but so is losing your home.”

Homeowners not eligible often turn to the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements plan for coverage. On the positive side, Attlesey said, some homeowners may qualify for private coverage now that the fire has burned dangerous brush, putting homes at lower risk for future damage.

“This fire was unique because we never knew what was going to happen,” said Attlesey, whose agency has been in constant contact with public safety officials about the fire’s progress. “It’s an ominous feeling when you see that ash and the orange sky at night.”

AAA reportedly has said it will not issue insurance policies for homes above Cathedral Oaks and Foothill roads until the fire is out. However, according to Noozhawk correspondent and Santa Barbara real estate agent Laura Hout, First American Title has an insurer that will issue policies at this time.

Workers at the Red Cross shelter in San Marcos High’s gym were in the process of packing up Tuesday morning now that most evacuees have been allowed to return to their homes.

Emergency services specialist Omar Salcido said the shelter will be on standby since few communities are facing danger.

Anyone in need of shelter services can call 800.951.5600.

“We’re going to keep that facility down there (in the cafeteria) open,” Salcido said, “but it won’t be manned and we’ll have shifts on standby waiting for a phone call.”

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at [email protected]

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