By Kurtis Alexander and Jill Tucker
Damage claims from the October wildfires that tore through Wine Country and beyond have jumped to $9 billion, state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said Wednesday.
The losses -- reported to major insurance companies and tracked by the state -- far surpass claims from any other wildfire event in California. The 1991 Oakland hills fire was previously the most costly, with about $2.7 billion in reported damages after accounting for inflation, according to the New York-based Insurance Information Institute.
The recent blazes destroyed more than 5,000 homes and nearly 1,000 businesses across six counties, according to the commissioner's office. Thousands more were damaged, as were other buildings, barns and cars, resulting in 25,979 total claims.
"These are extraordinary loss figures," Jones said. "And sadly as the fires rage in Southern California, we can anticipate that we'll see significant losses there as well."
The greatest destruction was in Sonoma County, where nearly $7.5 billion in losses was reported to insurance companies, primarily due to the Tubbs Fire that swept west from Calistoga into Santa Rosa. Claims in Napa County totaled about $1.3 billion, with losses from fires also logged in Mendocino, Lake, Alameda and Solano counties.
Jones expects the figures to grow, though he said the bulk of the damage has likely been reported. So far, more than $3 billion has been paid out, according to the commissioner's office. While the payouts are expected to strain the dozens of companies providing insurance in Northern California, state law limits how much they can raise premiums.
"Insurers cannot take all of the losses associated with a catastrophe like this one and dump it into next year's rates," Jones said. Instead, he said, the companies are legally bound to recoup costs over 20 years, resulting in "modest" annual increases.
Also Wednesday, state and federal officials warned residents to be on the alert for people looking to illegally profit from the disaster. The FBI announced that local, state and federal agencies have launched a task force to combat fire fraud in Northern California.
The effort seeks to crack down on schemes that have begun to emerge, including fake charitable funds, scam applications for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid, rental deposits solicited on housing that doesn't exist, and construction and insurance fraud, officials said.
"It's not bad enough that your house can fit in a dumpster, but people are stealing from you. We want to make sure people are aware of what to look for," said FBI spokesman Prentice Danner. "If it smells too good to be true, it probably is."
The Northern California wildfires began Oct. 8 and were pushed by strong winds across about 250 square miles, killing 44 people. The causes of the blazes remain under investigation.
The state's most costly catastrophe was the 1994 Northridge earthquake, according to the Insurance Information Institute, prompting about $24.5 billion in damage claims after accounting for inflation.
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