BOULDER – A few months after Chris Cook and his family left California to settle in a four-bedroom house nestled amidst the ponderosa pines at the foot of the hills, they received a letter stating that their police were not safe. home insurance had been canceled.

The insurer, Allstate, had concluded – after the appraisal by an appraiser – that the house was too likely to be destroyed by a forest fire. Cook, a technical officer and a recent transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area, said his response was "wait, what ?!

Mortgage companies require homes to be insured. The cancellation therefore puts Cook's financing at risk. He feared that it would be more difficult to get another major insurer to sign his home after refusing one of them.

He is not alone. As more and more deadly fires spread in western states, it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain home insurance on a property surrounded by forest, accessible only by country roads or on slopes where forest fire is likely to occur.

Although most homeowners in fire-prone locations can still purchase policies, insurers often subject their coverage to tree and understory coverage. And some insurers may be refused by several insurers before finding a loan to assume the risk.

States and counties are starting to redouble their efforts to help homeowners make their properties as safe as possible.

The challenge is particularly acute in California, where catastrophic fires in 2018 have caused more than $ 9 billion in losses to insured property, according to the state's insurance department. The campfire that burned through the city of Paradise and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes leads a small local insurer in case of insolvency.

California's insurance department does not have precise figures on the number of homes to which insurance has been refused, as companies are not obliged to disclose this information, said Nancy Kincaid.

But since 2014, more than 15,000 homes located in areas of medium to extreme fire risk have turned to the state's ultimate lender, the California Fair Access Plan, which was created by insurance to serve those unable to protect themselves elsewhere. Premiums are also rising in high-risk areas, said Kincaid.

Scientists expect the fire danger to increase as the climate changes, according to the latest federal climate report. Meanwhile, more people than ever live in forest areas, with millions of homes threatened in California, Colorado and Texas, according to Verisk Analytics, a company that models the risk of fire for insurers.

"The Commissioner (California) remains concerned," said Kincaid, "between climate change and drought, and the way and the way we built homes, we will witness a growing trend of non-renewal."

Homeowners can, however, reduce risk by eliminating the risk of fire. In Boulder, Cook's broker told him that he could probably have Allstate subscribers reconsidered if he worked with a nationally-known Boulder County program to eliminate problem trees and brush.

The program, Wildfire Partners, helps residents create what foresters call a "defensible space" around their homes by cutting off low branches of trees, removing leaves from gutters and taking other measures that make more difficult the transport of fires.

Program coordinator Jim Webster finally wants homeowners to consider mitigating the effects of mitigation as another form of home maintenance, he said. "It's becoming more and more standard and hope to live in the forest-urban interface".

Insure the houses in a place exposed to fire

Insurance companies are now using satellite data to assess the risk of fire at a given location. Verisk's FireLine tool, for example, assesses factors such as topography, vegetation, wind patterns, and accessibility, as homes are safer if it's easier for firefighters to get there .

When a potential customer calls Truett Forrest, a State Farm agent in the city of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, he logs his address to the fire risk assessment tool. his company. The algorithm classifies the home in one of three categories: no worries, high risk or extreme risk.

Forrest estimates that about 10% to 15% of real estate belong to the third category, a classification that means State Farm will not provide insurance.

"It does not matter that they cut every tree and every bush on their property, we would not insure it because of where it is," he said.

The Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado ...The Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, which ravaged the Mountain Shadows Subdivision, has proven to be one of the most destructive in Colorado history. This photo was taken on June 28, 2012. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Homes classified as high risk – the second category – can be insured if homeowners take measures to protect their property, for example by removing brush and taking firewood piles on the bridge.

"For most homeowners, the price is affordable," said Bill Trimarco, Archuleta County Coordinator for Wildfire Adapted Partnership, a non-profit organization that helps owners of Pagosa Springs, the county's head office, plan and maintain pay for firefighting work.

Trimarco estimates that processing a radius of 150 feet around a house usually costs less than $ 2,500. It's "less than a new heating system, if it breaks down". At least one insurer, USAA, offers discounts to homeowners who live in a Firewise USA community.

The designation of the National Fire Protection Nonprofit Association states that residents have reduced their fire risk. According to the association, there are 1,500 Firewise communities nationwide.

But some experts say that mitigation takes time and is somewhat subjective. Many variables determine why one house burns and another does not.

Homeowners may end up getting the advice of an expert like Trimarco, who go against those of an appraiser sent by their insurer to review the property. They may also hear different things from the same insurer over time, as risk models and underwriting standards change.

Forrest said his own home was once classified by State Farm as an extreme fire risk. The company is not abandoning its current customers in high risk areas, but if Forrest had sold the house, the new buyer would probably have been denied State Farm insurance. His home is now classified as high risk, he said, thanks to a 2017 update of the company's risk analysis software.

The Wildfire Partners Approach

Since 1993, Boulder County has required all those who build a house in the western part of the county – on the edge of the city and the beginning of the Rocky Mountains – to perform forest fire mitigation work. After the Fourmile Canyon fire in 2010, which ravaged 169 homes in the foothills, county land use officials decided that they needed to step up their mitigation efforts.

In response, they created the Wildfire Partners program in 2014 to dispel any confusion about best practices in mitigation and to get more owners to participate.

The Wildfire Partners program is made up of forestry and fire protection experts and is advised by insurance companies, including Allstate, who are committed to accepting certificates obtained by families doing work on their property.

The program has two employees and several subcontractors. It is funded by both the county and by state and federal grants of about $ 2.6 million. It is open to residents who are required to participate and those who are not. Nearly 1,900 owners have received advice to date.

After Cook had received the letter ending his insurance, he called Wildfire Partners for help. A week later, a specialist was on his property, circling the house and the wooded mountain behind it, signaling problems.

Fire crews fight a forest fire

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Fire crews fight a forest fire at Sunshine Canyon on March 19, 2017 in Boulder. Due to the fire, more than 1,000 homes were evacuated west of Boulder.

"I was prepared for -" Oh, you'll have to erase everything, "said Cook, who was advised to keep a good distance between trees and cut saplings and brush, which reduces the risk of dangerous fire and allows grasslands that resemble the savannah to flourish.

The specialist then sent Cook a list of tasks – cutting mainly long grass that crawled into his patio and removing bushes and trees nearby – for which Cook hired the local fire district. The job cost $ 1,100, but Cook paid only $ 500, thanks to a grant from Wildfire Partners. The program also took care of the visit of the specialist.

Upon completion of the work, Cook received a certificate of completion and submitted it to Allstate. It had taken weeks of stress, strewn with threatening letters from her mortgage lender, but thanks to the certificate, her insurance was reinstated.

Without Wildfire Partners, "I do not know what the answer would have been," he said, standing on his back patio on a sunny morning while his two dogs were suffocating in the pine forest beyond. It might have been necessary to hire an expert to give a second opinion to the insurance company, he said. Or take out an expensive insurance policy from a lower company.

The mortgage broker at Cook did not respond to requests for comment.

Tanya Robinson, communications consultant at Allstate, said in a statement that the insurer generally needed a defensible space to be created and managed in high-risk areas. The company uses the Colorado State Forest Service guidelines to identify problems, and the customer needs to resolve them to keep covering them, she said.

Plan for the future

Some researchers studying companies' response to climate change believe that insurers should do much more to prevent people from living in areas where the fire danger is severe. "At some point, insurance companies have to adapt. That must happen, "said Andrew Hoffman, a sustainable business professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

And some policymakers say the government should crack down. Given the intensity of recent fires in California and the likelihood of such fires continuing to ravage communities, localities should consider banning the construction of homes in certain areas. told the Associated Press last month.

"We need to continue to raise the standard of what we are doing and local planning decisions must be part of the discussion," said Ken Pimlott, director of the department of forest and fire protection. the state. He also suggested updating forest fire warning systems and making buildings more fire-resistant, particularly those that can house evacuees after a disaster.

A neighbor helps to put out the hot spots ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

On March 4, 2018 in Kiowa, a neighbor helps to create hotspots on his neighbor's land. Many structures on the land were destroyed by a fast-moving forest fire that quickly spread in high winds through dry grasslands. At least 3 houses and 4 barns were lost in the fire.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, convened a 2013 Fire Insurance Task Force. The group of local, provincial and federal officials, as well as representatives from the insurance, mortgage and housing construction sectors, recommended that states assess the risk of forest fire from 1 to 10 homes. .

He also suggested sharing this information with insurers and homebuyers, creating a state-wide mitigation program and charging fees to homeowners in high-income areas. risk.

Home builders objected to the idea of ​​risk assessment, saying it amounted to placing a "scarlet letter" on a house and that it was useless, said Ted Leighty, CEO of the Colorado Association of Homebuilders. "We do not necessarily think that a rating should be awarded by the government. This is already happening, thanks to insurance underwriting. "

But policymakers also face pressures from residents, homebuilders and insurers who do not want to disrupt the real estate market or leave some people trapped in uninsurable homes.

"When you put a number 10 on a house, it can change the situation. In many cases, this could make the goods unmarketable, "said Amie Mayhew, then president of the Colorado Association of Homebuilders. said The Denver Post after the task force released its report.

The task force's recommendations did not result in any legislation, although Hickenlooper signed a separate bill in 2013 that addressed insurance issues such as alternative coverage to help survivors a disaster. At the same time, about half of the Coloradans live near or in areas threatened by forest fires, according to the latest evaluation of the state forest service. This represents 2.9 million people.

In California, landowner advocates are pushing lawmakers to help them find and keep their insurance, but they want to avoid shaking up a market that still works for most people.

"We are trying not to use the word crisis because we are trying to keep the insurance industry calm," said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a group that advocates for consumers.

New building codes in California

California lawmakers have in recent years passed a series of laws designed to help homeowners. A law passed in September forbids insurers to cancel policies for one year after declaring the state of emergency only because a residence is in or near the emergency area.

Since 2005, the state has required homeowners in high-risk areas to maintain a 100-foot defensible space around their homes. Since 2008, they have been asked to use fireproof methods, such as installing vents that do not trap embers, in the construction of new homes.

But the new building codes do not apply to existing homes, said Yana Valachovic, forestry consultant at the University of California Humboldt Extension Cooperative. And the defensible space rules do not focus enough on immediate landscaping around a home, she said.

Basic efforts such as Wildfire Partners are a better approach than top-down state regulations, said Webster Director Webster, as communities all face slightly different situations.

For example, the individual certification model of houses does not work in places where houses are very tight, he said. In these cases, what the neighbors are doing to solve the risk issues, and it makes more sense that the entire development project is working together on mitigation.

There is no guarantee that the defensible space prevents a fire from consuming a house, especially if that fire is a fast-moving fire, like the the one who swept paradise. But many communities in the West hope that a more coordinated approach to mitigation measures will help reduce their risks.

Another Colorado county and an area of ​​six state counties have programs such as Wildfire Partners, and the Trimarco group in Pagosa Springs would like to create something similar in southwestern Colorado. Webster now receives calls and emails from California officials who wish to learn more about the program.

Carole Walker, executive director of Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, said she spoke to local leaders who wanted to replicate the program, but could not afford it.

Landlords, local governments, and state and federal governments have a role to play in encouraging and funding work, she said. "It's a dangerous situation. It must be remedied from the public safety point of view. "

While some homeowners resist the idea that they have to cut down trees on their property, many are happy to spend a little more to keep their families safe. "I'm glad we had to follow the process," Cook said, "because I know a lot more about how to keep things prepared."

Sophie Quinton is a writer at Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts


Forest fires in Colorado and the United States

The map shows the locations of active forest fires and all 2018 fire zones. The default map is Colorado; to see all the wildfires, click on "United States" in the viewing area. Click the Map Layers icon in the upper right corner of the map to change the backgrounds of the map and switch between active and controlled fires and perimeters. Click on a marker or perimeter for more details. To see the complete map and a chart of all the fires of 2018, click here.

* Data comes from two sources, GEOMAC and InciWeb, and could contain inconsistencies. Map made by Kevin Hamm and Daniel J. Schneider.