Highland fire saga is far from over, insurance adjuster says. Here’s what we know

Since a fire torched part of Highland High last April, Pocatello patrons have been seeking clarity — they want to know what the rebuild will entail, and how much of it insurance will cover. 

Straightforward answers to those questions are unlikely anytime soon. 

“This feels like a chicken-and-egg scenario,” Pocatello/Chubbuck Trustee Heather Clarke said at a special meeting Tuesday. 

Emergency personnel respond to a fire at Pocatello’s Highland High on April 21, 2023.

The district’s insurance provider, Idaho Counties Risk Management Program or ICRMP, can’t say exactly how much it will cover until it has plans for the rebuild in hand (a rough estimate is that the total will be over $20 million). But trustees — and some Pocatello voters — want definitive answers from the insurance company before they decide how to move forward. 

Simply put, the parties seem to be at an impasse. 

“We’re as close as we can get until we take this next step of going into the design and planning phase,” Seth McClure, an independent insurance adjuster hired by ICRMP, told trustees Tuesday. 

For their part, trustees have spent months debating whether to ask taxpayers to chip in (again) for the Highland rebuild, to cover upgrades that go beyond what ICRMP will fund. 

Moving forward has become a saga, and it’s far from over. As McClure told trustees: “Pack your patience.”

While there are no hard-and-fast answers yet, McClure did illuminate some new details about the work going on behind the scenes of the catastrophe that caught statewide attention last spring. Here’s what we know.

Insurance after the fire: “What you had is what you get”

The gist of an hours-long presentation McClure gave to Pocatello trustees: “What you had is what you get.”

There’s a phrase that goes along with that, which Pocatello/Chubbuck School District’s director of business operations, Jonathan Balls, has memorized by now: “like, kind and quality.”

Highland High was built in the 1960s. The district’s insurance will only pay to restore the school as it was, with no upgrades, unless code calls for them.

It means that the insurance will only pay to restore Highland’s damaged D-wing to the closest approximation of what existed before the fire. Affected gyms and classrooms will remain the same size, be rebuilt with similar materials, and include similar contents — unless doing so would violate code or if the materials are now obsolete. For example, if there were “massive wood ceiling trusses” in place before the fire, those would likely be rebuilt with updated materials. 

Updates and improvements will only be paid for if code requires them. If trustees want to take this opportunity to upgrade and improve the school, that will have to come from district coffers. 

But now’s the time to make changes, McClure advised trustees, “rather than saying, oh we’ll rebuild it as is, but then 10 years from now you knock down to rebuild something completely new.” 

Some good news: the district’s deductible is “insanely small,” at $2,500, McClure said. “You’re really fortunate to have that.”

He anticipates ICRMP will end up covering more than $20 million toward the rebuild. 

Getting these answers, however hazy or incomplete, has taken months of work and oversight from dozens of insurance companies. 

“Big loss, big exposure, lots of dollars:” Behind the scenes of a monumental insurance claim

April 21, 2023. 

McClure will never forget that day, when a 6:30 a.m. phone call informed him of the fire blazing at Highland High: “I knew we were dealing with something big.”

It triggered investigations by a handful of agencies and companies. Ultimately, it was ruled accidental, with no entity held liable. 

From there, ICRMP started working to catalog and assess the losses — efforts which have been overseen by dozens of companies. 

It’s a major claim, with “big loss, big exposure, and lots of dollars.” So ICRMP has a backup: it insures itself with County Reinsurance Limited. And County Reinsurance has its own backup — more than 20 different companies, known as an insurance market. “Each take a piece of the pie” to cover the expenses, McClure said. 

All told, “there’s 20-25 different sets of eyes looking at everything.”

And the insurance company has called in a slew of experts, including:

  • A fire investigator
  • A structural engineer
  • A building consultant
  • A contents consultant
  • A forensic accountant

It’s a complicated process, but “there’s a rhyme and a reason and a method to the madness,” McClure said. 

At the meeting, Board Chair Deanna Judy pushed for “straightforward answers,” and expressed frustration at having to make decisions without them.

“We have kids that need a place to be,” she said. 

Trustees will have to decide by late March, when ballot language is due, if they will run another bond ask in May. 


Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Reporter Carly Flandro works in EdNews’ East Idaho bureau. A former high school English teacher, she writes about teaching, learning, diversity, and equity. You can follow Flandro on Twitter @idahoedcarly and send her news tips at [email protected].

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