Fire Losses Exacerbated by Lack of Insurance

By Beacon Staff

After the Mountain Villa Apartments erupted in flames on the morning of Nov. 21, families and individual residents were left homeless and stunned, having just watched their life’s possessions go up in smoke. American Red Cross stepped in, as it usually does, but with a series of residential fires throughout Western Montana in recent weeks, the nonprofit organization is facing a daunting disaster relief bill for the month of November.

Not to mention, Red Cross can help out for only so long and then the residents are on their own. Mark Reasner, disaster relief team leader for Red Cross in Kalispell, said the troublesome situation brings to light an important question for renters: Should they have tenants insurance?

Reasner said only one resident had tenant insurance from the Mountain Villa fire, which started after a man dumped gasoline on wet wood and tried to light it. Red Cross didn’t have to assist that tenant but had to pay for all of the other displaced residents to stay in hotel rooms for three days if they didn’t have family or friends. Red Cross also helped them financially as they tried to get back on their feet.

Several apartments at the Mountain Villa complex, which is located in north Kalispell, were destroyed directly by the fire while others were damaged by smoke and water. There were no injuries and the man who started the fire was charged with negligent arson.

“All the people we help are the ones without insurance because if they have insurance they don’t need assistance,” Reasner said. “A lot of people don’t know insurance exists.”

Tenants insurance generally costs in the range of $200 per year, or less than $17 a month. Tony Martin, owner of Flathead Insurance, said clients who purchase the insurance are covered for roughly $10,000 to $20,000 worth of possessions, including furniture, stereo systems, clothing and anything else inside the house. Rates vary based on the amount of possessions a renter has, but basic insurance protects the amount of possessions typically found in a two-bedroom house. Also, some auto insurance agencies give discounts if the client also purchases tenants insurance.

“It’s very broad in what is covered,” Martin said. “It’s pretty much anything you would find in a normal household.”

Martin said he understands that $200 per year is difficult for low-income residents, adding: “If I have to pay the rent or the insurance, I’d pay the rent – and the food.”

The insurance also helps resolve liability issues for both tenants and landlords. Laurie Bradshaw, account executive at Western States Insurance Agency in Kalispell, and Martin both said they are seeing more landlords require their tenants to purchase insurance because it protects them against liability. If a tenant doesn’t have insurance and an accident occurs, a landowner could be vulnerable to a lawsuit, Martin said.

“Tenants (with insurance) are in that primary position when it comes to lawsuits,” Martin said.

Theft and fires are the two main perils for renters, Martin said. At Flathead Insurance, tenant deals usually come with a deductible of $250 or $500. Martin said his agency gets about 100 people per year who purchase tenants insurance and he estimates only a quarter of all renters have it.

“It’s not that many frankly,” Martin said. “It should be more.”

“If somebody doesn’t have it, where can they go?” he added. “It’s a mess. Anyone’s who’s been through it, it’s not fun for them.”

Red Cross in Western Montana is facing a large disaster relief bill for the month of November because of what Colleen Tone, director of Montana Red Cross’s disaster relief services, calls a “rash of fires.” In Northwest Montana, there were residential fires in Whitefish on Colorado Avenue, in Evergreen and up Patrick Creek, to go along with the Mountain Villa blaze, Reasner said.

In Missoula, there were two residential fires within a week of the Mountain Villa fire that left people stranded. Red Cross responded to all of the fires. Displaced residents often need money for everything from toiletries to groceries to clothing, as well as lodging.

Reasner hopes Red Cross is able to get some of the money back through community donations. Fires generally pick up in the fall and winter because more people are burning wood for heat, but Reasner said November was a particularly bad month.

“This Mountain Villa thing is kind of going to break the bank,” he said.

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