Wildfire Hardened?

State’s new program helps cut homeowners policy costs

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The number of homeowners dropped from their insurance policies each year accounts for less than 3% of all California policyholders. Yet if you’re one of the unfortunate souls who receives that dreaded notice of non-renewal in the mail, the low percentage is not much consolation. In the Tahoe/Truckee area, that percentage is likely much higher due to most homes’ proximity to the urban-wilderness interface.

“Daily we are inundated with people calling us [because] their insurer is canceling them. Very sad and unfortunate times,” Truckee State Farm Insurance agent Roxanne Duffield told Moonshine Ink. “We obviously can’t take them all, as market penetration is Insurance 101, [a single company] can’t insure all the homes on the block. We have a tool that determines, modeled on State Farm’s parameters, if that location is, or is not, in a high wildfire area. And, no, everyone is not. We do write homeowners policies.”

Grim Outlook: There are above normal chances for significant wildfire potential in Northern California, including the Tahoe/Truckee region, for the month of June, according to this map from the National Interagency Fire Center’s Predictive Services. Courtesy graphics

According to the California Department of Insurance, 212,727 policy holders in the state saw their homeowner policies not renewed by their insurance companies in 2020. In the Moonshine Ink coverage area, the breakdown is 4,908 in El Dorado County, 3,224 in Nevada County, and 4,791 in Placer County.

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“Since we are not dropping our valued policyholders, we do not have stats on how many have been canceled, nor have I ever been sent countywide numbers on how many,” Duffield said. “But I know it’s staggering. That is the subject everyone is talking about all over town.”

The overall statewide number was a 10% drop from the previous year, when 235,597 homeowners were dropped by their insurance companies. This hints at the possibility that progress is being made when it comes to helping homeowners keep their policies in place even following increasingly devastating wildfire seasons.

While she can only speak to her company, Duffield said, “State Farm never has, and assures us they never will, outright cancel someone because they are in a high wildfire area! We do reinspect properties we currently insure. At that time, if mitigation is needed per the attached Cal Fire guidelines, we give them more than a year to comply. On a rare occasion someone does not do what is needed to protect their home and keep their insurance.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom joined with California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara to announce Safer from Wildfires, a new insurance framework that incorporates wildfire safety measures to help save lives while making homes and businesses more resilient. Safer from Wildfires is an interagency partnership between the insurance commissioner and the governor’s emergency response and readiness agencies with the goal of protecting lives, homes, and businesses by reducing wildfire risk. Safer from Wildfires is similar to Cal Fire’s longstanding Ready for Wildfire campaign, which educates homeowners on how to harden their homes against wildfire through adequate defensible space and other measures homeowners can take to protect their homes before fire strikes.

“I am using every tool available to protect Californians while reducing the risk of wildfires,” Lara said in the February announcement. “Making homes and businesses safer from wildfires protects all Californians, saving lives, reducing losses, and making insurance more available and affordable for all.”

The idea is to pursue “a comprehensive strategy to safeguard insurance for consumers through risk reduction, stronger consumer protections, and improvements to the FAIR Plan, California’s insurance safety net.”

In conjunction with Safer from Wildfires, the commissioner is working to increase wildfire safety insurance incentives for consumers. According to the California Department of Insurance, currently 13 insurance companies (representing 40% of the insurance marketplace) offer discounts for safer homes and communities, with additional companies looking to follow suit.

With its “ground up” approach, Safer from Wildfires is a tri-layered methodology in preventing wildfires from catching and spreading to other homes and businesses in the neighborhood. First comes the structure, then immediate surroundings, and third, the community.

In protecting the first step – the structure – homeowners can do things like install a Class A fire-rated roof, upgrade to double-paned windows, and ensure eaves are enclosed. Jumping to the third step – community – refers to knowing whether you live in a designated Firewise Community. Under the National Fire Protection Agency’s Firewise USA program, this designation verifies that a community has complied with a set of voluntary criteria on an annual basis. Should the community retain an “In Good Standing Status” rating, it may identify itself as being a Firewise Site, for which many insurance companies offer discounted rates.

Easy as 1, 2, 3: California’s new Safer from Wildfires program is a three-step framework homeowners can follow to help cut insurance rates — and possibly prevent them from getting dropped by insurance companies due to wildfire risk.

Between structure and community lies the crucial task of protecting the immediate surroundings. This means not having other combustible structures within 30 feet of the main structure, clearing debris and vegetation from beneath decks, and complying with defensible space requirements like trimming trees and removing brush and debris from the yard. This is particularly important as drought conditions are expected to continue.

“The California drought monitor shows we are still in a drought. These persistent dry conditions are continuing to dry the fuels including the big 1,000-hour fuels, [3- to 8-inch diameter trees,] that can lead to catastrophic fires in our area,” Truckee Fire Chief Bill Seline wrote in an email to Moonshine Ink, referencing the system used to measure moisture content in dead fuels. “The National Predictive Services is predicting a higher-than-average likelihood of a devastating fire in our area starting in June. Everyone needs to do their part to protect our area, starting with removing dead and dry fuels to create defensible space. Go to truckeefire.org to take advantage of free green waste disposal and be extremely careful with anything that could create a spark this fire season.”

Find a list of insurance agencies offering discounts for fire-hardened homes and communities at insurance.ca.gov.  

Author

  • Juliana Demarest

    Juliana Demarest is a Jersey girl with ink in her blood. She fell in love with print journalism at a young age in the '80s when her Uncle Tony would take her to "work" at his weekly paper. In 1997, she co-founded a weekly newspaper in North Jersey. One day, she went to photograph a local farmer for a news story. She ended up marrying him and leaving journalism to become a farmer's wife. In 2010, they packed up their two children and headed to Truckee in pursuit of the outdoor life. She didn't realize just how much she missed journalism until she joined Moonshine in 2018 after taking time off to be mom. Connect with Juliana juliana@moonshineink.com

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