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'It needs immediate action' | Homeowners desperate for affordable insurance in fire-prone areas

Thousands of homeowners are finding their insurance companies are dropping them or sharply increasing costs, following record wildfire seasons.

EL DORADO COUNTY, Calif. — Thousands of people in fire-prone areas are either getting dropped by their homeowners' insurance company or paying sharply-raised premiums. 

This comes after two record years of wildfire damages. It's a problem that has been affecting people for months, but now California is heading into the most dangerous fire months.

Laura and Charlie Callahan have lived on 10 beautiful acres atop a hill in El Dorado County’s Somerset community for more than 25 years.

"We keep our property pretty well clear,” Charlie said, gesturing to the defensible space around his house. “As you look down the hill there, you can see we're pretty well cleaned up."

RELATED: ‘Strike Team’ addressing fire insurance hikes, cancelations in Foothills, Butte County

Over the years, the couple has invested a lot of time, money and love into their home and property.

"I'd hate to have to leave all that because I've got to live somewhere where it's a lot less expensive,” Laura said, her voice heavy with emotion.

In April, the couple received what folks in El Dorado County know simply as “The Letter.”

"We had our homeowners insurance for over 20 years, and we got 'The Letter,' as people refer to it, and we were canceled,” Laura said. “It gave us about 45 days to find new insurance.”

The couple has had their homeowners insurance canceled three times this year. They’re now insured through a mix of Lloyd’s of London and the California FAIR Plan.

“Hopefully this time will stick,” Laura said, “but I'm now paying four times what I was paying before. It's gone from less than $1,000 a year to almost $4,000 a year, and we're on a fixed income. He's retired, I'm retiring, and it wasn't something we expected."

The Callahans aren’t alone.

"Some people are paying more for their homeowners' insurance than they are for their mortgages,” Laura said.

RELATED: ‘It’s a major concern’ | California homeowners struggle to buy fire insurance

The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors recently polled homeowners. Hundreds of people said their insurance was either canceled or the price was sharply increased.

It’s a situation Board Chair Sue Novasel calls "dire."

"If you don't have fire insurance, you're not going to be able to either stay in your home, maintain your home or, God forbid, have to sell that home,” Novasel said. “It's going to affect California in a lot of other ways other than just having insurance. It's going to affect our real estate market, it's going to affect our economy."

The problem prompted Novasel to write a letter to California's Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, asking him to come assess the situation for himself in El Dorado County. Lara recently visited and met with leaders in Butte, Placer and Nevada counties. Novasel hopes he responds to her July 25 letter soon. 

ABC10 reached out to the California Department of Insurance Monday afternoon to ask for the department’s response to Novasel’s letter, but as of Monday night, no spokesperson had replied.

RELATED: Nonprofit creates map showing communities most vulnerable to potential wildfires

"We have homeowners right now that are doing what they can to get defensible space, and yet they're not being allowed to have that put toward their insurance rates,” Novasel said. “They're still being canceled. They're still being tripled their rates."

Laura Callahan said their insurance cost less than $1,000 a year for more than 20 years and she would have been fine with incremental increases, but a sudden quadrupling of their premium, now, is hard to stomach.

"I get it, we live in a fire danger area,” Callahan said, “but I think it should be done based on a one-by-one basis. I think they should take the time to come out and actually investigate your property, see what you've got cleared, give it a scoring system of some type, and that's what your insurance is based on, but that's not the way our state works."

Many insurance companies use what’s called a home’s FireLine® score to judge whether to offer insurance or not. It’s an insurance product that combines mapping and other technology to determine a home’s fire risk, and it’s not based on how well a homeowner clears their property.

Both Novasel and the Callahans want that to change, giving homeowners a chance to access affordable insurance if they can show they’ve created adequate defensible space.

RELATED: How to build a wildfire defensible space around your home

"It needs immediate action because we are at a point where, at any given time, we could have the next Paradise fire,” Novasel said. “God forbid we don't have people that are insured. They don't have any way to get the recovery that they need."

The Callahans say they can weather a $3,000 increase this year, but if their premium increases much more in the future, they don't know what they'll do.

"I've recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and I really feel like this has a lot to do with it because this has been going on since April, and I was perfectly fine until then,” Laura said.

The state's Department of Insurance announced last week it plans on sending a "Strike Team" to affected counties in coming months. ABC10 reached out to them on Monday afternoon to ask what specifically they plan to do to help people. The department has not yet replied.

What is the California FAIR Plan?

The State Legislature helped establish the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan more than 50 years ago.

“It is an insurance pool established to assure the availability of basic property insurance to people who own insurable property in the State of California and who, beyond their control, have been unable to obtain insurance in the voluntary insurance market,” the plan’s website says.

It’s not a state agency, and it doesn't involve any public or taxpayer dollars. But people who can’t get fire insurance through any other avenue can get it through the California FAIR Plan.

The FAIR Plan is meant as a last resort, and experts recommend that people shop around before resorting to it.

So what if my insurance company drops me for fire coverage?

The California Department of Insurance’s hotline, 1-800-927-HELP, can help homeowners determine their next steps.

Most major insurance companies you’ve heard of are called admitted carriers, but there are other insurance companies where people can get fire insurance. Those are called not-admitted carriers or “surplus” carriers.

One is called Lloyd’s of London, from which the Callahans are now getting their insurance.

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