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Waldo Canyon Fire: Toll Adds Up For Insurers, Insured

By Ryan Maye Handy, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 19--The trees, ultimately, had to go.

After he received a non-renewal notice from his insurance company last month, Monument resident Bob Meeker shopped around for coverage that would allow him to keep a few old trees, considered fire hazards, on his property.

But nearly every company he turned to gave him the same answer: With the increased wildfire danger in the Pikes Peak region, the trees were a hazard. After weeks of deliberation, Meeker recently had the trees cut down, including one he guessed was around 150 years old. He kept his homeowners' insurance policy with American National.

He realized that he might as well stick with old insurer, "if I am going to have to cut down the trees regardless of what company."

Meeker among many Coloradans who are feeling the heat this winter after the most destructive wildfire season in state history.

In response to the billions of dollars of insurance settlements paid out to thousands of homeowners over the past few years along the Front Range -- mostly for hail and wildfire damage -- insurance companies have raised their premiums.

And the companies will subject each policyholder, such as Meeker, to further scrutiny. It's all in the interest of keeping homeowners safer, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. But that safety comes at a high cost for homeowners, particularly now that insurance companies in Colorado can count the damages from the summer fire season as some of the most expensive on record.

Long after the Waldo Canyon fire was fully contained and the last firefighters headed back to their home bases across the country, the cost of the 18,247-acre fire continued to climb. On June 26, the fire killed two people and consumed at least 346 homes -- nearly seven months later, some residents whose homes were either damaged or lost continue to battle with insurance companies.

The 2012 wildfire season was the most costly in Colorado history for insurance companies, with nearly $450 million in insured damage, according to Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association statistics.

The Waldo Canyon fire alone has become the most costly for insurance companies, with around $352.6 million in insured losses and 4,300 claims filed, according to insurance statistics.

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The Waldo Canyon fire and High Park fire, in Fort Collins, now rank among some of the most costly disasters, in terms of insurance loss, for the entire Rocky Mountain region. The list of 26 catastrophes includes the fire season of 2002, when the Hayman fire raged through Teller County, as well as several hail storms stretching back to 1990 that have earned Colorado the nickname of "hail alley," according to an insurance information association report.

Along with Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the northeast in the fall, the 2012 hail and wildfire season in Colorado made national insurance claims skyrocket, making 2012 the second costliest year for the insurance industry in United States history. In Colorado, a catastrophic June hail storm racked up $321 million in insurance losses.

Wildfire and hail storm survivors are as united in their struggles with insurance as they are in statistics. J.B. Duca'sColorado Springs home was flooded during a June 6, 2012, hailstorm, and his struggles with insurance mimic those of owners of smoke-damaged homes in Mountain Shadows.

Duca read stories about the "partial loss" group in The Gazette and realized he was going through the same motions with his company.

"I've experienced the same thing with insurance company not wanting to cover me," he said. "There are people who literally have had homes burned to the ground but they can rebuild. My basement is exactly as it was the day it flooded eight months ago."

The night of the storm, hail broke Duca's basement windows, and water drained from his neighbor's yard poured into the basement, he said. Duca had 700 gallons of water pumped from the basement. His insurance company refused to pay for the damage, claiming that it was caused by "groundwater," and therefore not covered by flood insurance, Duca said.

Like many homeowners, Duca said that he has never filed an insurance claim, but continued to pay his premiums as they mounted each year.

"Looking back on the premiums I paid, I could have just kept all that money and paid for the damage," Duca said. "It's a scary thought when we're spending all kinds of money."

--

Contact Ryan Maye Handy 636-0261

Twitter @ryanmhandy

___

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(c)2013 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

Visit The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) at www.gazette.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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