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Insurance at Peril for Many in California’s Risky Fire Areas

As California’s wildfire season looms, threatening once again to break records for destruction, tens of thousands of rural homeowners risk facing the flames without enough insurance to rebuild if their homes burn.
Insurers have been taking a hard look at the millions of Californians who live in areas with a very high risk of wildfires, especially in recent years when a series of costly fires incinerated thousands of rural homes.

From 2015 through 2019, insurers dropped property coverage for more than 143,000 customers in 13 counties, according to California Insurance Department figures reported by the Sacramento Bee.

In the Sierra Nevada foothills, more than 25,000 customers lost their insurance in Nevada and Placer counties alone.

“Every buyer in Nevada County is scared about that,” Tiffni Hald, a Nevada City real estate agent, told the Bee. “Every buyer is worried about, ‘Can I get insurance?’ There’s nobody writing (coverage) up here at all.”

The number of people whose policies weren’t renewed climbed sharply in areas where wildfires caused massive damage. Replacement insurance coverage is limited and usually much more costly.

During the same 2015-2019 period, tens of thousands of people enrolled in California’s FAIR Plan, an insurance pool that provides basic fire insurance coverage for high-risk properties that traditional insurers won’t cover, according to its website. It is considered the state’s “insurer of last resort.”

Last September, the Glass Fire destroyed more than 650 homes in Napa and Sonoma counties in California’s wine country, including as many as one-third of the homes in Deer Park. Even before the fire, insurers had dropped insurance for many residents of the community, which is in an area that the state fire agency, Cal Fire, designates as a wildfire “hazard severity zone.”

“I know a lot of people are deciding, if they do rebuild, can they get insurance?” Roger Lutz III, the Deer Park fire chief, told the Bee.

Last year, state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara issued a moratorium that barred insurance companies from non-renewing or cancelling residential property policies for homes near or in areas that burned in 2020 wildfires. However, the mortatorium — the second in two years —expires in November, bringing a renewed threat of cancellation to more than 2 million policyholders while the summer-through-fall fire season is still in swing.

Lynn and Kirk Grace of Deer Park lost their home in the Glass Fire. The couple saved their dog and two horses but lost a cat and chickens, along with oak and fir trees.

The Graces were covered by the FAIR Plan but the couple told the Bee it won’t pay enough to rebuild their home, a project their contractor estimates will cost at least $800,000.

“We will be hundreds of thousands of dollars short,” Grace said. “A number of our neighbors are questioning whether they’re going to be able to do this.”

But the family, as with many others, plans to remain in the dangerous fire area.

“We would have to completely uproot ourselves and go somewhere strange in our golden years,” said Grace, 59. “My family’s been here since the 1850s … This is our new reality and we’re going to make it work.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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