More than 100 Calaveras County residents poured into the San Andreas Town Hall Monday to hear Ricardo Lara, the state insurance commissioner, detail his department’s plans for addressing the fire insurance crisis. Fire coverage is getting increasingly harder to find and afford in Calaveras County and around the state, due to destructive wildfires in recent years.
Local county supervisors and staff were among the crowd, along with California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and local fire district personnel for the fourth meeting on the insurance department’s town hall tour of fire-prone counties across the state.
Staff with the Insurance Department walked around with notepads to allow residents to write questions for Lara and other department representatives to be answered later in the meeting.
Lara presented statewide data regarding the loss of available insurance coverage in the fallout of large devastating fires over the past few years, along with a list of regulatory proposals the department has sent to the state Legislature.
“This is an issue that is continuing to grow in the state,” Lara said. “We know the trickle-down effect of what happens when you cannot find insurance for your property. It devastates the real estate market, it devastates the economic impact of our businesses … and ultimately it ends up affecting evaluation of your property, which means less tax dollars for local governments, which again is already hindering low-income communities and counties.”
Insurance companies issued 518 nonrenewals in Calaveras County last year, and that number will likely be higher for 2019, Lara said.
Part of the issue is that many insurance companies use a Fireline risk assessment model that scores the fire risk of a property based on its fuel load, slope and access via satellite imaging, he said.
Accorditng to Lara, the model is limited because it doesn’t take into account what homeowners have done to mitigate risks on their properties or their claims history.
Lara said that the Insurance Department doesn’t have the authority currently to place more stringent requirements on insurance companies to ensure that they cover certain areas. An example would be requiring insurance providers to cover homeowners that have taken significant measures to mitigate risk around their homes. He is asking state lawmakers to give the department that authority.
“I’m telling you now, I’m prepared to go to court if I get sued from the insurance companies,” Lara told community members. “I’m prepared to fight the good fight to get these changes done.”
Additionally, there are currently a few fire insurance-related bills sitting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk – one to set up a fund to support mitigation efforts, and another to require inspections by Cal Fire to assure that homeowners are doing the work to reduce risks around their homes, Michael Soller, deputy commissioner, told the Enterprise.
Insurance Department regulatory proposals to the state legislature:
Increase the coverage limits of the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan from $1.5 million to $3 million and to provide full homeowners coverage and offer monthly payment plan options. The FAIR Plan is a pool of funding for fire insurance coverage funded by a consortium of insurance providers. It was formed in the 1960s to offer a “last resort” insurance package for homeowners whose carriers dropped their coverage.
Require insurance companies to notify policyholders of individual fire risk scores to give them time to mitigate. It would also offer an appeals process for fire scores.
Unveiling an insurance website to allow people to shop around for coverage
Require providers to cover and provide premium discounts to homeowners that have “done everything to mitigate their homes.”
Increase the notice time for rate increases of more than 25% to 60 days in advance to give homeowners more time to shop for a different policy.
Create a statewide mitigation assessment for efforts to reduce fire risk
Feedback from residents
Voicing questions and concerns to Lara and deputy commissioners Tony Cignarale and Joel Laucher, many residents said they felt the department’s actions weren’t addressing the issue quickly enough.
“I got my nonrenewal notice in September,” one woman told the panel. She said that her fire protection class rating was a 2, but the risk assessment model that AAA, her insurance carrier, uses showed her property to be too risky to cover. “It’s very frustrating … If I went with the FAIR plan, the FAIR plan says you have to have 200 feet of clearance, which goes into our neighbor’s property. Does the FAIR Plan come out and look at your property and say what the rate will be or do you just get to get it, and how responsive are they after you file a claim?”
She added that she’s heard that Butte Fire and Camp Fire victims had trouble receiving their claims.
“What it sounds like is that you have a protection class score and a fireline score on top of that,” Cignarale responded. “That is one of the concerns that we have, there’s no law that prevents them from doing that today. That’s why we’d like to change that, to require them to include issues like mitigation that they don’t usually include ...”
Her response: “That’s great for the future, but that doesn’t help me now.”
“We’re totally helpless. It’s like the big guys against us ...” a local business owner told the commissioner, adding that coverage on her winery was non-renewed and she hasn’t been able to find coverage since.
Another woman said she called more than 10 agents to find coverage after being non-renewed with no luck.
Among others, Cliff Edson, a District 1 resident and former county supervisor, said that representatives with the Insurance Department were not addressing forest restoration and wildfire prevention through forest-thinning.
“We should be putting funds together for preventative maintenance,” Edson said. “As far as insurance goes, those guys want to maximize profits. They’re not interested in us.”
Vallecito resident Stephen Wasik was one of many attending the meeting who has seen insurance rates spike in the past year.
His insurance carrier, Lloyd’s of London – a non-admitted carrier (not regulated by the state) – has nearly doubled his rates to $4,000 per month.
“We were Butte Fire (victims), lost everything, so it’s hard,” he told the Enterprise at the meeting.