Inside Insurance: Lightning fires take a heavy toll

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Lightning can start fires that destroy homes, apartments, businesses and manufacturing facilities. Even worse, these fires pose a serious danger to firefighters and other rescuers.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, the number of lightning strikes per month begins to rise in March and does not subside until September.

Here’s a broad view of the problem as reported by the National Fire Protection Association: From 2004 to 2008, fire departments responded to an average of 24,600 fires per year in the U.S. that were started by lightning.

These fires caused an average of 12 civilian deaths and $407 million in direct property damage per year. Home fires accounted for 18 percent of the lightning fires. Fires in nonresidential structures, including businesses, accounted for 7 percent; vehicle fires accounted for 1 percent. The remaining 74 percent were in outdoor and unclassified properties.

Lightning fires in non-residential properties caused an average of $90 million in direct property damage each year from 2004 to 2008, according to the survey. The average annual damage in nonresidential properties includes:

• $21 million in storage facilities.

• $19 million in places of assembly, such as houses of worship and restaurants.

• $18 million in non-home residential properties such as hotels and motels.

• $15 million in mercantile and business properties such as offices, specialty shops and department stores.

• $10 million in industrial and manufacturing facilities.

• The remainder was in outside properties ($3 million) and educational and healthcare facilities ($4 million).

From a safety perspective, the National Weather Service reports that in 2010, there were 29 fatalities in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands. Additionally, there were 182 injuries reported and total damages estimated to be $71.58 million.

Insurers reported 203,278 claims paid to policyholders in 2010, $1.03 billion in insured losses and an average cost-per-claim of $4,846, according to the I.I.I.

While Texas, Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina were in the top tier of fire fatalities, ranging from 212 in Texas to 129 in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina were in the second tier, ranging from 110 in Alabama to 98 in South Carolina. Georgia posted 109 fatalities during the period.

Weather incidents involving strong thunderstorms and heavy lightning appear to be rising across the Midwest and Southeast. Homeowners and renters should make sure that smoke detectors are working at all times. Additionally, evacuation plans should be a top priority to residents.

That becomes even more important when children or the elderly are a part of the family group.

Insurers often talk to their policyholders about the need for disaster plans, but evacuation can be complicated and should be a top priority for everyone.


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