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Insured wildfire losses in California could be approaching record levels, according to a briefing Wednesday from A.M. Best Co. Inc.
The number of acres burned in 2018 is already nearly double the 2017 total, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and insured losses stemming from the Northern California Carr Fire earlier this year could reach $2.0 billion, Oldwick, New Jersey-based Best said in the briefing.
The Camp Fire in Butte County has now burned 130,000 acres and is 35% contained, while the Woolsey Fire in Ventura and Los Angeles counties has burned 97,620 acres and is 47% contained, according to the most recent data available on the Cal Fire website Wednesday.
Best noted that it is early but warned losses could be historic.
“It’s too early to estimate the damages from the wildfires, but A.M. Best expects that 2018 losses will be at record levels for California,” the briefing said.
“The potential for historic losses was already likely before the Woolsey fire ripped through the wealthier area of Malibu, which has a median home value of approximately $2.9 million,” Best said. “Also at risk are many commercial structures and locations in the area that are used in the film and television industry.”
Best added that “many primary insurers limit their exposure to high-value properties and cede exposure outside of their tolerances to reinsurers.”
Among commercial lines insurers, Farmers Insurance Group of Cos. has California direct written premiums of $672.0 million, giving it a 16.3% market share, followed by Travelers Cos. Inc. with $365 million in premiums and an 8.8% share, and Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. at $342 million and an 8.3% share.
Total dollar direct losses incurred for commercial property insurers in California roughly doubled in 2017 to $3.50 billion from $1.76 billion in 2016 but still amounted to only around 20% of the losses reported on the homeowners/farmowners lines, which roughly quadrupled to $16.0 billion in 2017 from $4.243 billion in 2016, according to Best.
The fires may roil earnings season, but the industry should be able to absorb the losses, Best said.
“Despite a loss-affected 2017, most large writers in California are larger national companies that started 2018 with adequate risk-adjusted capital,” the briefing said, although it warned that “catastrophe events of 2018 will likely cause significant earnings volatility and could stress some balance sheets.”
The Carr wildfire in California has likely caused an estimated $1.5 billion in insured losses to date, foreshadowing another major wildfire loss event for insurers in the state, according to a report by Moody’s Investors Service Inc.