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News / Northwest

Insurance companies abandoning victims of Medical Lake and Elk wildfires

By Thomas Clouse, The Spokesman-Review
Published: April 20, 2024, 5:53am

SPOKANE — Elk resident Kelcene Dodd brought home boxes of pizza from Spokane on Aug. 18. The slices never got touched.

Aware of a nearby fire, Dodd, 59, walked out onto the deck of the two-story home her 82-year-old father began building himself when he was 78. It’s located off of Jackson Road in Elk on 120 acres that have been in the Dodd family for more than 100 years.

Wind was blowing the blaze in the opposite direction.

“By the time we walked around the house, the wind shifted and the fire was right on us,” Dodd said. “It was so close, it was taking our breath away. I ran into the house to grab my dogs.”

Dodd, who was living in a motorhome on the property after being displaced from a different fire six years ago, escaped the Oregon Road fire but returned the next day.

She drove her father through the smoke to check on his unfinished house and more than $1 million worth of logging equipment, farming machinery, a drilling rig, work shop, dump truck and other heirlooms of a life of hard work.

Everything was gone, and not a bit of it was insured.

“It was devastating. We were just in shock,” Dodd said, pausing to push back tears. “We couldn’t believe it was gone.”

The devastation wrought by the Oregon Road fire near Elk and the Gray fire near Medical Lake, on the same day last summer, burned a combined 21,000 acres and destroyed 366 homes. Spokane County estimated the loss at $166 million of assessed value.

Some eight months after the fire, even those victims who had insurance are discovering what companies offer as settlements are not coming close to making them whole.

Some insurance companies are dropping clients, telling others they won’t be renewed or, even in cases of homeowners who avoided damage, are raising monthly rates to levels they can’t afford, several sources told The Spokesman-Review.

Asked for the scope of the insurance problem, Rick Knapp, a volunteer who is helping network victims to available resources, put it bluntly.

“The simple answer: Everyone, myself included, is underinsured,” Knapp said. “If you set up an insurance policy five years ago, with the economy and with the cost of living what it is, you will find out that a loss policy will only cover this much.”

Medical Lake Mayor Terri Cooper estimates that 1,000 people remain displaced from the Gray fire.

“Even those with insurance are finding they won’t be able to renew when (the premium) comes around,” Cooper said. “The question is what do we need to do to help these people be better positioned. How can we work with insurance companies to make it so that premier insurance companies don’t leave? There’s got to be a way.

“I’m concerned. It’s a big deal.”

Knapp, a board member of the Elk Strong Long Term Recovery Group, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency continues to work with uninsured homeowners to get them some money. Because more than half of the property owners in the area did not have insurance, the Oregon Road fire victims have received about $2 million combined in relief, he said.

Federal relief officials “have done wonderful things, but only for those who register,” Knapp said. “If you don’t register, you don’t qualify. There is no guarantee, but registering is the first step.”

In addition to FEMA, the federal Small Business Administration is also offering 2% loans to fire victims. And, the Salvation Army is under contract to provide case managers for up to two years to help fire victims put their lives back together, he said.

The state Office of Insurance Commissioner is aiding those who seek help with denied insurance claims, and several grass-roots groups, such as ReImagine Medical Lake and New Hope Resource Center

* have organized everything from clothing drives to helping insulate camping RVs that have become impromptu homes.

“The demographics of Medial Lake are very different than the demographics up here in Elk,” said Knapp, who retired from the U.S. Navy in 1996 and now owns a small lavender farm. “There are a lot of very proud, private people up here. They are leaving money on the table that rightfully could be theirs if they just register.”

Dodd said she wishes it was just that easy. She has filed several rounds of paperwork with FEMA and said both she and her father have received some assistance. But, she mostly received frustration.

“They asked, ‘Do you have receipts?’ Are you serious?” Dodd said. She told the FEMA representative “give me an envelope and I’ll give you some ashes, and there’s your receipt.”

Dodd, who slept in her Jeep from August until November, said she’s trying to secure enough money for her father to build a small home. He’s currently in a fifth wheel RV. She’s living in a gifted RV from 1992 “that has lots of issues.”

“To me, if someone lost your home, everybody should receive the same amount,” she said. “It should not make a difference.”

Rising premiums

Sarah Murphy, 36, had to evacuate her four kids and five dogs to her mother-in-law’s house near Mount Spokane. She sent two cows to the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center, and 20 chickens, two geese and a duck were transported to the Clayton Community Fairgrounds.

While the fire never reached her home, Murphy and her family were ordered to evacuate the area for about eight days.

“I opened my claim, which is what you were supposed to do. But (the insurance company) would only cover a day’s worth of clothes for my family,” she said.

That claim, for which nothing was paid, remains open. Eventually, her insurance agent quit taking her calls, she said.

“I just ate the costs,” Murphy said.

But then it got worse.

A few years ago, Murphy and her husband worked with the state Department of Natural Resources to remove possible fire fuels.

She signed up with a program for which DNR employees come assess possible risks. They gave the couple a list of things to do, including removing trees close to the home and other bushes that might become fuels.

“Every day for two years, I worked to clear all the trees and brush around my house and limb all my trees,” Murphy said.

DNR then paid the couple, as a part of the program, for making their home safer from fires.

Then the Oregon Road fire came on Aug. 18, and a neighbor on a bulldozer was able to cut a line that helped stop the fire from reaching the Murphy’s property.

Her insurance company, Liberty Mutual, then sent out a brush crew in February to check the home for possible fire danger. She had them remove just a single bush.

“I had already done that,” she said of the brush clearing. The insurance crew “said I was really in excellent shape. I had 3 or 4 acres in front of my front yard that is a completely cleared field.”

The next month, Liberty Mutual informed the Murphys that their monthly premiums were going up $170.

“They said we were a high-risk for wildfires,” even after sending the crew a month before, Murphy said. “I can’t afford that. It costs us money we didn’t have in the first place, and I was never able to claim the loss of use or loss of incidentals to maintain my standard of life after we were evacuated. I’m still very irritated.”

Laura Jense, 62, who lives in the west Medical Lake area, can relate to Murphy’s frustration. The Gray fire stopped several feet from Jense’s property.

Even though she made no claim, Farmers Insurance recently informed her that they were dropping her as a client at the end of May after 23 years.

“Some people are having to pay double the price, if not triple, for new carriers,” Jense said.

Jense reached out to the state Office of Insurance Commissioner only to find out that insurance companies are under no obligation to keep clients as long as they give a 45-day notice of dropping them.

“They are canceling everybody in this area,” she said. Officials need to “shed light on what are some reasonable pathways for people.”

Cooper, the Medical Lake mayor, announced earlier this year that she is running for the seat being vacated by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Cooper said part of the solution must come from how state and federal officials classify disasters like the Oregon Road and Gray fires.

“If we can get the state of Washington and the feds to recognize wildfires as natural disasters … then the government would come in and help clean up the toxic debris,” she said.

She explained that a percentage of the burned homes have tested positive for asbestos, which continues to show up in trace amounts in several products that are sold today.

Those victims who suffered a total loss were required to undergo asbestos tests, which can cost up to $3,500, Cooper said. If they test positive, the cleanup can cost up to $80,000.

“If you get a maximum payout, most only offer about $12,000 for debris” cleanup, she said. “What happened in this fire, especially those who tested positive for asbestos, they have to pay that (cleanup) first. Whatever is left, they have to figure out how to rebuild their homes.”

Jeanna Swanson is the director of the New Hope Resource Center. It was created to help low-income, disabled and elderly residents in the Elk area.

But since the Oregon Road fire, it transitioned into a clearing house for helping fire victims with everything from propane to Easter baskets.

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“It’s been a constant wave of pain of trying to navigate all the aspects that it takes to recover from a natural disaster,” Swanson said. “I have talked to multiple families who have been absolutely exhausted emotionally and financially because of that process.”

One of her clients was diagnosed with cancer and another with dementia since the fire took place. In the meantime, they live in recreational vehicles during the winter that were designed for camping in warm weather.

“They say it takes two to three years to recover from a disaster like this,” Swanson said. “We are only eight months in. We’ve got a ways to go.”

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