First comes the fire, then comes the financial fallout for those living in areas deemed by insurers as high fire risk areas. 

Homeowners living in those areas across the state, including the Yuba County foothills where the Cascade Fire in October 2017 killed four people and destroyed 264 structures, are finding it harder and harder to keep their fire insurance policy or find a new, more affordable alternative.

“Policy premiums have continued to increase over the years,” said Liz Powell Skutley, a local realtor with Re/Max Gold and member of the Sutter-Yuba Association of Realtors. “In some areas buyers/owners are not only paying a higher premium for their policy, they are also needing to have two policies to replace the traditional policy that has been used for years.”

Two months before his fire insurance policy renewal date, Loma Rica resident Andrew Golding was dropped by Capital Insurance Group. The reason: he was located in a Tier 2 fire risk zone. Tier 2 indicates an elevated risk while Tier 3 means the area is at an extreme fire risk, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Golding was initially given a few different options but it was going to cost him nearly two times what he used to pay, so he declined. Luckily for him, he was able to find a provider willing to insure him, but it still came at a cost.

“I finally went with Geico, who insures my car and motorcycle,” he said. “The cost was only $400 more than my previous premium. Considering the Camp Fire’s damage to the insurance industry, I suppose I’m lucky to have insurance at all.”

Within the past few years, a number of wildfires have ravaged the state, causing many insurance providers to modify their underwriting guidelines, while some have altogether stopped providing services in some areas of the state. 

In the first four months of 2019, fire insurance claims from November 2018 – the most destructive wildfire month in California’s history – had already gone over $12 billion and will no doubt continue to grow as damages from other fires, including the Camp Fire, continue to be assessed, according to the state Department of Insurance.

That has led to countless horror stories from homeowners living in high risk areas, like long-time policy holders being dropped suddenly or new insurers offering coverage at astronomical rates.

“We got dropped by Liberty Mutual in May then Nationwide this month. Got new insurance but price keeps getting higher and higher,” said Cassy Thorn, a Smartsville resident. “It’s going to make people lose their homes at this rate. My mortgage has gone up $300 this year alone with insurance prices.”

There have been some success stories, though. Dobbins resident Pam Worrell said she’s been dropped from her provider twice since 2017 due to her property being in a high-risk area. It started to look like she was going to have to go with her last resort – the California FAIR plan – and supplement that with a “difference in conditions policy,” but a helpful broker was able to find a policy that worked for her situation.

“Originally, they started to issue the FAIR plan but mid process they found a complete policy for me with Berkshire Hathaway GUARD (Insurance). It ended up costing $200 less than my Travelers insurance and $500 less than if I went with the FAIR plan and a wraparound with Travelers,” Worrell said.

Continuing issue

Zach Zall with Huntley-Bravos-Zall Insurance Brokers in Marysville said the insurance market has tightened over the last few years, meaning policies have become less affordable and harder to get. He expects that trend to continue moving into 2020. 

“Over the last few years, we’ve experienced the costliest fires in the state’s history, with losses in excess of $20 billion. Insurance carriers are the ones that take those losses on and cannot continue,” Zall said.

A lot of people are under the impression that creating a defensible space around their property will help lower their premiums, but that’s not always the case.

“’Defensible space’ is one of those buzzwords; it’s great, when it comes to keeping up on your property, but a person’s eligibility in the eyes of an insurance company depends on many factors that are out of their own control, like slope, vegetation density, location to a responding fire department; whether that department is full-time or volunteer; how close they are to fire hydrants; and how much access there is to that particular location” Zall said. 

Zall said 2019 has been his busiest year with all of the non-renewals his clients have received. However, it’s not just property owners in the heavily wooded areas that are having difficulties. The risk map is growing.

“We tend to think of places like Loma Rica and Brownsville as wildfire areas, but we are also seeing a challenge in places like Folsom and El Dorado Hills,” Zall said. “What insurance carriers are looking at right now is ember fallout, which is wind-driven.”

Advice

For those that have been dropped from their insurers or are looking for a cheaper alternative, Zall said the best thing to do is ask around and explore all of the available options before making a selection. 

“Ask questions, understand what you are buying and understand the differences in policies,” Zall said. 

Before dropping a customer, a company might also send a letter asking them to complete a list of risk mitigating items to help keep the cost down or the policy in place. Angelica Mathews, an insurance agent with Robert M. Galligan and Associates, Inc., said when that happens, jump on the opportunity before it’s too late. 

“It might be expensive but it is a one-time expense to save long term on a premium,” she said. “If the company doesn’t even give that option, then people need to call around. I suggest finding an independent broker so they can reach out to their companies but also find companies that only offer insurance direct.” 

Mathews said the California FAIR plan should be someone’s last option, as it is a limited form of insurance (www.cfpnet.com). Also, she said, insurance policies must be updated annually, so around renewal time work with a broker to potentially identify cheaper options.

“Companies are dropping out of this state left and right. I am waiting for the day I get my letter,” Mathews said. “I work for my clients, not one company so I hate seeing stuff like this happen to people. Please file complaints, get that (Department of Insurance) to stop approving rate increases.”

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