Some Insurers Drag Feet After California Wildfires

Some of the damage to Sill Family Vineyards after the Northern California wildfires.
Some of the damage to Sill Family Vineyards after the Northern California wildfires.

Unlike the first responders who never hesitated as they rescued thousands while battling the California Wine Country Wildfires,  some insurance companies seem to be dragging their feet.

“They’ve been very unresponsive,” Igor Sill said of his insurance company. The wildfires destroyed his Sill Family Vineyards in the Atlas Peak AVA, burning his winery, laboratory, and barrel building to the ground. Sill, who is the proprietor and winemaker, also lost his 2015 and 2016 vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

“An adjuster arrived eight days after the fire, assessed the devastation at 100 percent incinerated. Fully destroyed,” he said in a Thursday interview.

His insurance company, which he declined to name, told him they would issue a check immediately for approximately 25 percent of the damage and settle. One month later, he’s still waiting.

Sill Family Vineyards before the Atlas Fire.
Sill Family Vineyards before the Atlas Fire.

Sill is among many owners working with insurance companies to process claims related to the October wildfires in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties. The process includes evaluating properties for hazardous waste and fire-related debris danger. Once found, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will manage the removal process with the Army Corps of Engineers overseeing removal and clean-up.

A property owner’s insurance claim pays the cleanup costs. If the insurance payout does not cover them all, FEMA pays the balance.

With the help of Napa County officials, Sills filed the necessary paperwork and the federal agencies have already begun their work. He anticipates the process will be completed by early next week.

Sill described the response from the county and the federal agencies as “responsibly attentive.” He can’t say the same for his insurer.

He has hired a public adjuster to negociate with his insurance company.

“This is an incredibly painful and expensive process,” he says, “I believe it is prudent to hire a public adjuster who can interpret an insurance policy and seek an equitable economic recovery from an insurance carrier.”

Not everyone has had a painful experience with their insurers.

The Jarvis Estate, also among the first wineries to see federal help with the debris removal, found theirs to be quite helpful.

“We lost several structures on the property, most notably our historic grange barn that housed the original pilot winery,” said Will Jarvis, president of the operation.

“FEMA and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) have been helping us clear fire-related debris from the property and it has been very helpful to have their assistance,” Jarvis said. He praised his insurer—Great American—but declined to provide further details. The winery’s tasting room has been open and serving guests since late October.

Not all wineries have chosen to request assistance from FEMA, including Napa’s Signorello Estate, which suffered a total loss to their Silverado Trail winery and tasting room. “We’ve chosen to move forward with a private contractor to do the demo and debris removal,” said Ray Signorello, owner, winemaker and vintner of Signorello Estate. Their insurance provider, Fireman’s Fund, has provided “adequate” coverage regarding debris removal.

For Signorello, the cleanup is just the beginning of rebuilding. “I’ve already begun meeting with architects,” he said, “We are excited and optimistic about the future.”

Published on November 17, 2017
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