If you don't have coverage and you are downhill from an area devastated by wildfires, you need to get on the phone right now with your agent. —Jilene Whitby, spokeswoman for the Utah Insurance Department
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."
Crofts, for example, says he lives in Layton and high above the flood plain designated in that Davis County city. But because Layton participates in the program, he is eligible to add that coverage to his home if he desires.
He said the 30-day waiting period for coverage to become effective was designed around the prevention of a massive amount of people obtaining policies when widespread, catastrophic flooding is forecast.
In the case of the proliferation of wildfires across the West, however, the burn scars fueling mud flows and flash flooding is presenting risk beyond normal control, he said.
"The thing we are concerned about with all these fires is that it is going to increase everybody's risk for floods."
Jilene Whitby, spokeswoman for the Utah Insurance Department, said the bottom line is that if Utah residents live down slope from a hillside scarred by fire, they should invest in flood insurance. Some policies add as little as $150 a year to premium costs.
"If you don't have coverage and you are downhill from an area devastated by wildfires, you need to get on the phone right now with your agent."
The unfortunate mindset with insurance, Fitzpatrick said, is that homeowners fear risk, purchase the policy, and then cancel it after time when it appears the threat has waned, especially with flood insurance. Even earthquake coverage — notoriously more expensive — is more widely pursued in Utah than flood insurance, despite flooding inflicting the most damage year after year.
"We know that in 2010 the total premiums earned by insurers selling earthquake coverage in Utah was $28,106,860 and the flood insurance was $2,382,607," Whitby said.
In Herriman, where the Rose Crest Fire burned on city and state-owned lands this year and the Machine Gun Fire-scorched land in 2010, city spokeswoman Nicole Martin said informational brochures on flood insurance have been distributed to residents and the importance of coverage has been a repeated message by Herriman officials.
The focus has been on rehabilitation of the land through a massive re-seeding effort later this month. The plants, once they take root, will help slow the onslaught of any mud or debris from sudden downpours, Martin said.
Additionally, the city and its partners will install barriers and weather stations on the hillsides to help prevent mudflows and give enhanced warnings on storm systems' arrivals.
"We have an idea of where the vulnerable homes are," she said.