Utilities sink on wildfire fallout
Malibu resident Lance Schultz was jolted awake at 2 a.m. Friday with word that he needed to evacuate. With a roaring fire approaching the coastal community, he gathered his girlfriend, dog and 8-month-old son and headed to nearby Zuma Beach.
He returned Sunday to survey the damage. His home was saved after his girlfriend’s 82-year-old father returned to hose down the property he had built years before. But Schultz estimates about one-fifth of the houses in the neighborhood are gone, including a mansion down the block that was on sale for US$16 million. Much of the rest of the area is covered in black soot.
“The whole neighborhood looks like a war zone,” said Schultz, a 47-year-old art director.
The wildfires sweeping Southern California in the past week threaten some of the priciest real estate in the country, and they’re not done yet. The Woolsey fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, which began Thursday, has left two dead, destroyed at least 435 structures and was only 35 percent contained as of Tuesday morning. Because of the value of the houses and property involved, it could be among the costliest blazes ever for home insurers.
“Most people who have an US$11 million home have artwork that would be worth more than most homes,” said Dan Dunmoyer, president of the California Building Industry Association. “A high-end policy could pay out US$20 million to US$30 million per one residence.”
Homes threatened by the wildfire sweeping across Malibu, Calabasas and other high-end Southern California locales have a median value of US$1.1 million, according to Zillow Group Inc. The communities “are among the most expensive residential areas that have been affected by wildfire in recent memory,” said Matt Kreamer, a spokesman for the real estate data company.
The Woolsey Fire threatens 57,000 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. An estimate by CoreLogic Inc. put the price tag at US$11 billion to rebuild about 17,000 homes at risk from the fire, although it didn’t expect all of those properties to be destroyed.
California is simultaneously grappling with the Camp Fire in the northern part of the state, which has devastated parts of Butte County and left at least 42 people dead. It burned 125,000 acres as of Tuesday morning, according to authorities. That blaze threatens more than 31,000 homes with an estimated rebuilding value of US$7.28 billion, CoreLogic said.
Until now, the most destructive fire in the state was last year’s Tubbs Fire in Northern California’s wine country, which burned more than 5,600 structures. Insurance claims from that fire and others in the region totaled US$10.1 billion, according to California’s Department of Insurance. Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the agency, said it will take weeks for the department to get estimates from insurance companies for the current wildfires.
The Woolsey fire destroyed “more than 100 homes” in Malibu, said Skylar Peak, a city councilman in the beachfront community. “The value of the real estate doesn’t matter,” Peak said in a phone interview from Malibu where he stayed despite a mandatory evacuation order. “Lives matter.”
Among those celebrities losing their homes in the fires in Malibu were singer Miley Cyrus, “Airplane” actor Robert Hays, singer-songwriter Robin Thicke, rocker Neil Young and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” personality Camille Grammer. “My house no longer stands but the memories shared with family & friends stand strong,” Cyrus tweeted.
Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, a Malibu city council member and longtime Hollywood stuntman, was hospitalized after suffering smoke inhalation while trying to save his property from the fire. Wagner’s condition is improving, Peak said.
The fire leaped Pacific Coast Highway, destroying dozens of homes in Point Dume, an oceanfront community of mostly one-acre lots, whose residents include actor Gerard Butler and rock star Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Shen Schulz, a real estate agent with Sotheby’s International Realty, lost his four-bedroom home, despite a neighbor’s attempt to defend it from the blaze.
“Right now, our focus and commitment is to one another and rebuilding,” Schulz said in a text message.
Many homeowners were uncertain what happened to their property, amid the evacuations, spotty news reports and lack of phone service. Malibu residents were turning to Facebook and other private networks to coordinate help, according to Georgienne Bradley, a conservationist whose home and offices for her Sea Save Foundation were both in the evacuation zone.
“People had taken it upon themselves to protect their neighborhoods and their neighbors’ homes,” Bradley said. She said she has no plans to move away from Malibu after the fire, and said those she knew who lost their homes are planning on rebuilding.
Dunmoyer, the building trade group president, said lawmakers and homebuilders have already been making changes in home construction to make them safer. Roofs are required to be covered in fire-retardant shingles. Windows must be double-paned so they don’t explode in the heat. And vents must be covered to prevent embers from flowing deep into the home, he said.
New homes built in areas designated by the state as having a propensity for fires also have to have sprinklers and open space clear of brush so that firefighters can spray the dwellings.
“Most of the housing stock that is burning predates the safety standards,’’ Dunmoyer said.
The disaster is unlikely to damp property values in the long term, according to Stephen Shapiro, co-founder of Westside Estate Agency and a Malibu homeowner.
“I’ve been in a couple of fires in Malibu and people hit the brakes short-term and then come back in,” Shapiro said in a phone interview from his other home in the Bel Air district of Los Angeles, which is miles from the blaze. “But in the longer-term, the benefits of Malibu outweigh the risks of Malibu. And I think you see this in any area, whether it’s a flood, a tornado or a hurricane. People go back to where they were.”