PLACER COUNTY, Calif. — If you’re a homeowner in a fire-prone part of Northern California, there’s a good chance you’ve received a shock when trying to renew your fire insurance for another year.
Whole swaths of people have been finding that their insurance companies are either drastically raising premiums on fire coverage or dropping them altogether, in the wake of two record wildfire seasons in 2017 and 2018.
Local leaders have reached out to the California Department of Insurance (CDI) for help, as residents there head nervously into the thick of fire season uninsured or under-insured.
"I am writing to convey the board's profound concern about the lack of availability and affordability of fire insurance to homeowners in El Dorado County," Board of Supervisors Chair Sue Novasel wrote to Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara last month, calling it a dire situation. "It is an extremely urgent problem affecting many and, based on the frequent reports my fellow Supervisors and I hear from our constituents, there is no sign of any imminent change."
Outreach like that prompted Commissioner Lara to visit Placer, Nevada and Butte counties on Wednesday. As a result of meetings with local leaders, Lara announced he’ll be deploying a Department of Insurance Strike Team to the affected areas in the coming weeks and months.
These communities are experiencing “an upsurge in insurance non-renewals and other issues in the wake of the 2017 and 2018 fires, which caused nearly 150 deaths and $25 billion in property losses,” a news release from the CDI said.
Since 2010, the CDI has seen a 600 percent increase in complaints related to fire insurance non-renewals in wildfire-prone areas, the department said.
"With non-renewals on the rise, I will work with local leaders on statewide policies that reduce risk to make sure we keep insurance available and affordable,” Lara said. “My staff at the department have already begun requesting more detailed insurer data in order to increase transparency.”
How does my insurance company decide whether to drop me or raise rates?
"Hardening" your house, or making your home and yard as fire-proof as possible by clearing brush and creating "defensible space" – doesn’t make a difference in insurance premiums, El Dorado Hills insurance agency owner Christopher Kerksieck told ABC10 News in May.
Insurance companies use something called a FireLine® score to determine your home’s fire risk and whether to sell you fire insurance – and at what price, Kerksieck said.
“They’re using mapping technology to find out where the house sits," Kerksieck said.
The product's website says FireLine® judges wildfire risk on a home-by-home basis using advanced remote sensing and digital mapping technology to determine the effect of the three primary factors that contribute to wildfire risk:
- fuel — grass, trees, and dense brush feed a wildfire
- slope — steeper slopes can increase the speed and intensity of wildfire
- access — limited road access and dead ends can impede firefighting equipment
“That gives a score between zero and 30. The higher the score, the worse it is,” Kerksieck said.
He added that most companies won’t offer a homeowner fire insurance if that person’s FireLine® score is above a three. In past years, he said, some companies were insuring people with scores of up to nine.
“We’re seeing very few that are writing above eight now. In those situations, folks usually have to go to the California FAIR Plan, which is supposed to be a last resort. But in a lot of people’s situation, that’s their only resort,” he said.
He said he's seeing average premiums this year that span, depending on size and location of property and value of the home, from about $1,800 to $5,000.
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.
People can also look into the FAIR Plan.
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.
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