Homeowners insurance has become harder and harder to come by in wildfire-prone regions like Calaveras County in recent years, and state officials are working to pass legislation to address the problem.
In the wake of the devastating Camp Fire that tore through Paradise in Butte County last November, providers have been increasingly dropping policies for property owners across the state.
Murphys resident Tom Pratt is an independent broker with the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan Association, a consortium of providers that formed in the 1960s to offer a “last resort” insurance package for homeowners whose carriers dropped their coverage.
“I’m getting 15 to 20 calls per day or more, and I have a lot of folks that are absolutely panicked,” Pratt said in a phone interview. “I’ve done everything I can to get them coverage.”
He said the majority of the calls he receives from Calaveras County residents are homeowners in Arnold.
Along with Pratt, District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway said she has been receiving daily calls and emails from residents in the heavily-forested district that have been non-renewed by their insurance providers.
Part of the issue is that, dating back to the 2013 Rim Fire in Tuolumne County, insurance companies started holding individual homeowners to strict wildfire mitigation standards that can require thousands of dollars in property maintenance, Pratt said. The uptick in non-renewals have increased since the 2015 Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties and the more recent Camp Fire, Pratt added.
For areas where insurers still provide coverage, most homeowners can’t meet the costly mandates, which vary by carrier, but often include “excessive” tree-trimming and removal, brush-clearing and gutter-clearing, among other measures, Pratt said.
Additionally, some risk factors insurance companies take into account in the rate-setting process are out of the homeowners’ control, such as the property’s proximity to a fire hydrant, its topography – since wildfires burn up a slope much faster than on flat ground – or the wildfire risk of the surrounding neighborhood.
State-regulated providers, also known as admitted carriers, must have rates approved through the Department of Insurance. After making assessments on properties, providers request outrageously high annual premiums in high-wildfire-risk areas, and the state steps in with an order to lower the rates, with the intention of protecting consumers, Pratt said. Unable to reach a compromise with the state, insurance companies stop renewing homeowners’ policies in certain communities where the risk of wildfire is too high, as they could take a loss.
One alternative is for homeowners to look to non-admitted companies like Lloyds of London for coverage, but that comes with the risk of unreasonably high rates that may double or triple from year to year.
That leaves residents with the FAIR Plan and wrap-around coverage, since the policy only includes fire coverage, Pratt said.
Citing insurance companies’ discrimination toward rural counties, District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi said the loss of regional coverage draws serious long-term economic concerns for the county – from impacts on home construction to the real estate market to commerce.
Teresa Dahl, an agent for Gerard Insurance in San Andreas, said that since the Camp Fire, a high percentage of her clients have been non-renewed by companies the broker writes with.
“It’s been escalating since the Camp Fire – guidelines have changed, companies are non-renewing where I’ve had coverage for years,” Dahl said, adding that some carriers are pulling out of the state entirely. “I’ve been doing this for 22 years, and this is a very difficult time. With the prices of things, a lot of people, if they can’t afford it are going to go without insurance, or try to sell their house and leave.”
Pratt said the flight of insurance coverage is particularly damaging to the local economies of Arnold and Murhpys, due to the frequency of second home dwellers in the area. Without insurance, “a realtor can’t close the loan to the bank to allow folks to go spend in the town. It’s a big issue,” Pratt said.
Pratt said a solution would be for insurance company representatives to meet with local California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials and homeowners to learn about fire risk in particular areas before issuing non-renewals across an entire region. He added that a lot of companies often utilize outdated assessment tools that fail to factor in climate data.
Even after taking significant measures to reduce wildfire risks on his own property, Arnold resident Pete Padelford said he nearly had his policy non-renewed a few years ago when an inspector with All-State deemed that a tree was too close to his home.
Padelford and other locals involved in fire prevention efforts argue that Calaveras County, along with other foothill counties, have come a long way to make their communities more fire safe – a point the state hopes to highlight in order to draw insurance providers back to the area.
Padelford has been involved in several wildfire prevention projects throughout the region, but most recently that includes the Mill Woods fuel break near Arnold – the latest link in a circular chain of fuel breaks planned for the Highway 4 corridor in the coming years. A mechanical treatment that involves pruning and removal of underbrush vegetation and potential ladder fuels (small trees) from a landscape, a fuel break is designed to reduce chances for fire ignition, slow the potential spread of a fire and provide first responders extra time for containment. They can cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to implement, but state grants for fuel reduction have become widely accessible since the 2017 wine country fires. Fuel reduction projects are underway in Northern Calaveras County as well, thanks to the efforts of Glencoe resident Pat McGreevy and the Calaveras-Amador Forestry Team.
“I believe what we’re doing is going to help people in a normal fire – not a Paradise Fire, there’s not a chance in a windy fire,” Padelford said of the community fuel break efforts. “The wider we can make these shaded fuel breaks, I think we’re taking care of ourselves. I think the insurance companies should look at it the same way, (since we’ve) done work to help with (their) liability. We have to convince them that this is a good fire-defensive type of area – that’s going to be the catch.”
At a July 27 Calaveras Democrats fundraising event in Vallecito, California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara laid out some of the plans the Department of Insurance is developing to ensure homeowners keep their coverage. One idea is a task force that will engage with “residents, first responders, insurance companies, academia and other experts” to develop mitigation standards for individual communities across California, Lara said.
“What we’re seeing in Paradise, Santa Rosa and all these areas, Calaveras, is you have one home that did everything to harden their property, but (adjacent homeowners) may not have,” Lara told the Enterprise. “That’s not going to work, that’s not going to lessen the community-wide risk and that’s why you have insurance companies not renewing people in certain areas.”
Since private insurers currently have the freedom to write policies wherever they choose, state legislation would potentially require admitted companies to provide coverage for homeowners and communities that have demonstrated wildfire mitigation efforts, according to Deputy Insurance Commissioner Michael Soller.
If insurers request rates “that are actually sound, and if the company can demonstrate risk,” then they would still be able to raise rates and non-renew policies, should the aforementioned legislation be adopted, he said in a July 29 phone interview. “These would be new tools that help folks in Calaveras, Butte, Tuolumne (counties) and all of the other areas where we’re hearing from local leaders.”
Lara is also co-sponsoring Senate Bill 290, which would authorize the governor, insurance commissioner and treasurer to purchase insurance to help limit unanticipated costs due to mudslides, wildfires or floods.
The bill would back the state if it goes over-budget for firefighting and would allow the state to invest more proactively in local efforts, such as helping homeowners pay for mitigation measures. Lara said that could include the costs of fuels reduction or home hardening, which refers primarily to building or renovating with ember-resistant materials.
Additionally, the department plans on working with insurance companies to expand the coverage limits of the FAIR Plan.
“Its limit of $1.5 million hasn’t increased since the 1990s, yet home prices have increased a lot more in that time,” Soller emphasized.
Lara has recently come under fire for collecting $53,000 from insurance executives and their spouses for his 2022 reelection committee and intervening in four proceedings involving a company with ties to the donors, as the San Diego Union-Tribune has reported in recent weeks. During his campaign for the position in 2018, Lara pledged to decline any campaign contributions from insurance interests.
Despite the heat Lara has taken regarding the insurance executive donations, his camp said he is committed to fixing the fire insurance problem.
“He’s taken steps to address this immediately to make sure he’s abiding by his pledge,” Soller told the Enterprise. “Our department continues to meet with local homeowners and leaders. Over the past year, we met with 500 folks up in Chico. Just recently, we’ve had workshops in Butte County, Sonoma, Ventura, so we continue to be on the ground meeting with folks and looking ahead to be proactive.”
For homeowners with questions about their insurance policy, call the Department of Insurance hotline at 800-927-4357 (HELP).