California Wildfire Damages at $9B and Rising
PARADISE, CA — December 12, 2018 — November was the most devastating month of wildfires in California history with three separate fires collectively burning a more than 250,000 acres, destroying or damaging more than 20,000 structures, and killing at least 89 people, according to the Associated Press and other sources. Current insurance claims have reached $9 billion, but that number is expected to rise as residents gain access to their homes and more accurate information about the total losses is gathered.
Incredibly, the three fires all began on the same day, November 8. The first to ignite was the catastrophic Camp Fire, which started at 6:30 a.m., local time, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California’s Butte County. With 40 mph winds feeding the flames, the fire spread at a shocking pace, consuming 10 football fields a minute, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The first evacuation order for the town of Pulga was issued less than an hour after the fire started, and just after 8:00 a.m., evacuation orders were issued for the town of Paradise, according to ABC News.
Despite these evacuation orders, the massive fire hit so hard and fast that residents had little time to escape. The high winds blew embers from one property to another, engulfing the entire town of Paradise in deadly flames in a matter of hours. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that some people died in their homes, while others died trying to flee the fire in cars or on foot. So far, 86 people are confirmed dead from the Camp Fire alone, making it the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history. About $7 billion of the total insurance claims and the majority of damaged structures are due to the Camp Fire, with most of the losses centered in and around Paradise.
The remaining approximately $2 billion in insurance claims come from the Hill and Woolsey fires, which ignited within 30 minutes of one another on the afternoon of November 8 in Southern California’s Ventura County, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. These fires claimed three lives and destroyed or damaged more than 1,800 structures, including some high-value homes in the wealthy city of Malibu.
With the fires now completely contained, recovery efforts are beginning, and the first order of business is hazardous waste removal. According to The New York Times, when cars and structures burn, the toxic chemicals contained within are released into the environment. Oil, gasoline, household cleaners, batteries, heavy metals from electronic devices, and asbestos from older building materials are just some of the hazardous waste that must be removed before it is safe for residents to return and try to salvage keepsakes from among the rubble. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control is currently working with other state and federal agencies to clean and test the affected areas for safety.
Once the hazardous chemical cleanup is complete, debris removal will begin, a process that is projected to cost at least $3 billion, according to the Associated Press. Officials expect debris cleanup to begin in January and take about a year to complete. With thousands of people facing the loss of homes and businesses in both Northern and Southern California, the full rebuilding and restoration process is a years-long road that is just beginning.