Ventura County and Los Angeles County residents displaced from the Woolsey Fire had the opportunity to learn about the recovery process during the Fire Recovery 101 Informational Meeting on Dec. 7 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village.
The informational meeting was hosted by Southern California fire litigation law firms Singleton Law Firm, Padilla Law Group LLP, Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire, and Banning LLP. The group has dealt with wildfire cases for the past 11 years and has represented more than 5,000 displaced people.
Topics included applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster assistance, navigating the insurance claim process, recover of uninsured losses and emotional damages, and utilizing the Debris Removal Program.
“You deserve to be compensated,” said Gerald Singleton, senior partner at Singleton Law Firm. “The only way we can repair the damage caused by this fire is to make people whole again.”
Singleton walked residents through the afternoon when the Woolsey Fire begin on Nov. 8, near the Boeing Corporation in Simi Valley. Initial reports stated that Southern California Edison (SCE) reported a shortage two minutes before the fire began on a 16,000 volt power pole. Singleton said power lines that slapped together or failed equipment on the lines is most likely what caused the fire. The investigation is currently being conducted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
“It can take six months to a year for them to complete their investigation of what caused the fire,” Singleton said. “If the report shows that equipment started the fire, then you are allowed to cover all economic damages but not lost wages or physical injury. Emotional damages are harder to quantify, so an interview and detailed narrative is prepared about what differentiates you from everyone else.”
Singleton said the fire litigation group is conducting their own investigation but won’t be able to complete it until Cal Fire is finished. The group hires private experts that were trained as fire investigators and previously worked with Cal Fire, the U.S. Department of Forestry, arson investigations, as well as electrical engineers, metallurgists and other related experts. The first step is to conduct visual inspections.
“They will look at what happened and determine whether or not what SCE did is consistent to what should be done in the industry,” Singleton said. “In terms of negligence, these types of fires don’t occur without negligence.”
The investigators will also look at Remote Area Weather Stations to see if the winds were unreasonably high in the area on Nov. 8. Singleton when SCE repairs and replaces power lines, the newer lines are built out of different material and react differently in the winds.
“Typically, you get red flag condition warnings when there are sustained winds of over 15 mph, humidity below 25 percent and temperatures above 75 percent,” Singleton said. “But it might be normal to get winds 50 to 60 mph in a specific area. The power company has a duty to look to see what is reasonable to do in this area to protect that specific power equipment.”
Singleton said a solution to protect lines in high wind areas is to install spreaders between conductors to prevent electricity running through them.
“Spreaders are placed between the power lines in order to keep them from bumping into each other,” Singleton said.
Singleton noted one of the main problems in a wildfire disaster is that homeowners are underinsured in the areas of personal property and the coverage for outbuildings, trees, landscaping and hardscaping, also known as Coverage C in most policies.
“Virtually everyone is underinsured for Coverage C because typically it’s set at only 5 percent of Coverage A (the cost to replace the home),” Singleton said. “In all likelihood, the cases for the Woolsey Fire will be sent to Downtown Los Angeles Superior Court Complex Division.”
Singleton said those who do not have insurance are still eligible for FEMA and that FEMA also provides help to small businesses.
“For renters who suffer a total loss, FEMA will pay up to $10,000,” Singleton said. “With uninsured homeowners, it’s in the low 30s. Sometimes the State of California pays an additional $10,000. FEMA is also connected with the Small Business Association [SBA]. By applying for FEMA, you can apply for SBA loans.”
Singleton also encouraged displaced residents become involved with the Debris Removal Program.
“If you have insurance, they will charge what the amount is,” Singleton said. “If you don’t have insurance, it will be done for free.”
For those who have insurance, Singleton emphasized to talk with an insurance adjuster to get the process started.
“Document to the best of your ability what your losses are,” Singleton said. “Start dictating on a mobile phone and go through your mind what each room looked like in your house. Also take pictures and document what your property and landscape currently looks like.”