Mudflow damage covered by fire insurance

By David Jacobson, Temblor

Check your hazard rank

This photo shows damage caused by the Montecito mudflow last month. Due to the “proximate cause” doctrine homes will likely be covered under fire insurance. (Photo by: Kenneth Song/Santa Barbara News-Press)


Last month, a deadly mudflow struck the Southern California community of Montecito leaving 21 people dead and causing millions of dollars worth of damage. This slide came on the heels of the Thomas Fire, which burned nearly 300,000 acres and left steep slopes barren. As a result, when rain came, there was nothing to stop them from failing. In an announcement made this week, the California insurance regulator stated that insurers must treat mudflows that occur in areas recently burned by wildfires, as a peril from fire, if the fire is judged to have been a “proximate cause.”

This Landsat image from NASA shows the scar caused by the Thomas Fire. Because the Thomas Fire left steep slopes barren, when the rain came, there was nothing to stop slope failure from occurring.


Commissioner Dave Jones cited the “proximate cause” doctrine and stated that this means that, “if the facts show the Thomas Fire, a covered peril, was the efficient proximate cause of the subsequent mudflow, mudslides, debris flow, landslide, or other similar event, then damage caused by those events should be covered under the property owner’s insurance policy.” While the doctrine is not new, this statement was more of a reminder to insurers that they may be responsible for covering claims.

Such a reminder could lead to insurance companies having to dig deep into their pockets as the insurance company Aon Benfield estimates that losses from the mudflows could exceed $100 million. This news will also come as a relief to homeowners that lost everything since most insurance policies exclude hazards such as mudflows, debris flows, and floods. However, in the notice sent to insurance carriers by the state, “these exclusions are not enforceable if the facts establish that the wildfire (a covered peril) was the efficient proximate cause of the subsequent flooding, mudflow, debris flow, mudslide, landslide, or other similar events.”

Aon Benfield estimates that damage from the Montecito Mudflow may exceed $100 million. Much of that may be covered under fire insurance due to the “proximate cause” doctrine. (Photo from: Time)


What all of this is a reminder of is how one hazard can trigger another. While to some, these mudflows came as a surprise, to others they did not. Even in December, when the Thomas Fire was still raging across Southern California, Professor Nicholas Pinter of University of California, Davis’ Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences said that once the fire is out, there will be a need to build retention basins and other structures to prevent debris flows like the ones that happened a month later. Additionally, following the Montecito mudflow, he stated that “these burn slopes are loaded guns. If you live down slope, be aware what is pointed at you.”

The topic of hazards triggering additional hazards is one that is applicable not only to fires and mudslides, but many others as well. For example, in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, while the shaking did considerable damage, it was the ensuing fires that destroyed much of the city. If such an event were to occur again, most homeowners would be covered from earthquake-induced fire damage because of how most home insurance policies are written. Therefore, understanding both what is around you in terms of natural hazards, but how hazards can influence one another is important because it can help you understand what your risk is, what you are protected against, and how you can further prepare.


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