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The hidden cost of fire: floods and no insurance

Published: Tuesday, July 31 2012 8:37 p.m. MDT

Blackened mountain sides around homes in Herriman Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

FOUNTAIN GREEN — Sid and Kathy Facer endured the fear of a wildland fire and the stench of its smoke only to have a wall of muddy debris swamp their basement and blow out all their windows.

A sudden downpour Monday afternoon unleashed a torrent of cascading mud, water and debris from the burn scar of the Wood Hollow Fire above their home, burying all their basement belongings.

"It was a lake coming at us," she said. "It was not a river, it was not a stream. It was a lake coming at us full force."

And like the overwhelming majority of Utah residents, the Facers do not have flood insurance on their home. If the flames had reversed course and burned west instead of east, any fire damage would have been covered under their homeowner's insurance policy. Instead, the Facers are left on their own to recoup the losses from the damage caused in the debris flow.

"They're not going to cover one dime of it, not one dime at all," she said, "and I am more than upset. I have no windows in my house."

Only a little more than 5,100 homes or businesses in Utah have flood insurance, and the number should easily be twice that, said Barb Fitzpatrick, senior flood plain specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Denver. That is more than three times fewer than the number who have insurance in Colorado.

Because of the catastrophic wildfires in the West and the aftermath's heightened risk of mud flows and floods coming off mountains, the federal government is making it easier for some residents to snatch up appropriate coverage — and hopefully in time.

A national reform in FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program directed by President Barack Obama allows certain residents at risk for such fires or floods to forgo a 30-day waiting period for the effective date of coverage, but only if certain conditions are met.

First, the fire had to have happened on federal lands, with a determination made that there is an elevated risk due to charred ground unable to absorb water — creating conditions ripe for flash flooding and debris flows.

Even if the fire burned state-owned lands, Utah insurance officials are advising vulnerable residents to contact insurance agents and shop for policies, even if it does mean there is a 30-day waiting period for coverage to kick in. Residents can go to www.floodsmart.gov and click "Your One Stop Flood Risk Profile" to find out flooding risks.

Fitzpatrick said she has submitted the paperwork on several of Utah's wildfires to national FEMA offices to review the eligibility of waiving the waiting period. The federal agencies involved — such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management — will weigh in on the determination, she said. Those fires include: Wolf Den, Seeley Fire, the Dump Fire, Clay Springs Fire, the Shingle Fire and the Quail Fire.

Flood insurance has to have been purchased within 60 days of when the fire was contained, and Fitzpatrick said many of those fires are beginning to hit the middle of that window — such as the Dump Fire that began in June but contained a few days later.

The Clay Springs Fire, which burned more than 107,000 acres outside of Oak City near Delta, was contained on July 20, for example, and burned state, Forest Service and BLM lands. The time clock for purchasing flood insurance in that scenario hits day 12 on Wednesday.

John Crofts, Utah's point man for the National Flood Insurance Program, said nearly everyone who lives in a populated area in Utah is eligible to purchase some type of flood insurance, but few do.

"There's a big misconception out there that you have to live in a flood plain," he said. "The fact is if you live in a community that is a participating community in the program, you can buy insurance even if you live outside the flood plain."

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