California insured fire losses said to top 1 bln dollars

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SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 25 (Reuters) Insured losses from Southern California wildfires have exceeded 1 billion dollars and could rival losses from some of the costliest fires in California's history, a company that estimates catastrophic losses said.

''It all depends on the weather,'' said Tom Larsen, a senior vice president with EQECAT, a disaster modeling company. ''If the wind keeps blowing, the dollars keep tallying.'' Wildfires burned across Southern California for a fourth day on Wednesday. More than 500,000 people have been evacuated, most in the San Diego area, and more than 1,436 homes have been destroyed. Another 25,000 structures were threatened statewide.

The San Diego area was ravaged by a fire in October 2003 that destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Insured losses were 1.2 billion dollars in 2006 dollars, making it the second costliest wildland blaze in California's history, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III).

The most destructive wildland fire in California was in October 1991 in residential areas in the hills of Oakland. Its insured losses were 2.5 billion in 2006 dollars.

''This year's fires are extreme but not unusually so,'' EQECAT said in a statement.

''The trend of the last several decades (has been) populating the 'wildland-urban' area, exposing more people and insured values to the ever present fire risk in California,'' the company said.

An EQECAT computer-generated model of brushfire losses in California carries expectations for 1 billion dollars in such losses about every eight years, and 2 billion dollars in brushfire losses about every 15 years.

California Lt Gov John Garamendi, formerly the state's insurance commissioner, said in a telephone interview that it was too soon to estimate losses from the wildfires, but he expected that insurers were well prepared to cope with them.

Ron Lane, chief of emergency services for San Diego County, said at a news conference yesterday that damages would top 1 billion dollars.

''Losses of these magnitudes, of 1 billion dollars or up to 2 billion dollars, are events the industry anticipates,'' Robert Hartwig, an economist and president of III, said during a telephone interview.

Goldman Sachs analyst Thomas Cholnoky said in a research note on Wednesday that because of how widespread the fires were it appeared that losses could be spread more evenly across all of the insurance companies operating in California.

He had said in a note on Tuesday that it appeared ''non-traditional'' companies and markets such as London-based Lloyd's might bear the brunt of the losses.

Cholnoky wrote yesterday that ''attempting to identify possible individual company losses may not be as simple as looking at market share based on stricter underwriting standards that many companies adopted to avoid the very issue of brushfire exposures.'' ''It's a catastrophic event for California, but it's not going to have a major impact on the insurance industry,'' David Bradford, chief knowledge officer of Advisen Ltd, an information service for the commercial insurance industry, said yesterday.

''That would require the kind of events we saw in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina cost 41 billion dollars in insured losses.

California's not going to be close to that.'' Allstate Insurance Co said in a statement yesterday that it had sent response units to Southern California to help its customers affected by the wildfires. The company said the units were in motor homes where people could meet with catastrophe specialists who would begin handling claims.

Allstate said the units, which would be open seven days a week, were at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego and the Orange Show Fairgrounds in San Bernardino. The company said other units were due to arrive in the area later in the week.

Reuters AK VP0608

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