BOULDER, Colorado – A few months after Chris Cook and his family left California to settle in a four-bedroom house nestled among ponderosa pines at the foot of the hills, they received a letter stating that their police 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 a policy, insurers often subject their coverage to coverage, tree management and understory management by homeowners. 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 case of loss of insured property, according to the State Insurance Department. The campfire that crossed the city of Paradise and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes leads a small local insurer into 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 [California] The commissioner remains concerned, "said Kincaid," between climate change and drought, and the way and the way we built houses, to see a growing trend towards non-renewals ".
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 the hope of living in the world interface between wild areas and urban areas. "
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 mountain town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, he logs his address to the risk assessment tool. fire of 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 the real estate belong to the third category, which means that 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.
Pew Charitable Trusts
Chris Cook worked with a county program to create a defensible space around his home in Boulder, Colorado, including cutting long grass that crawled into the patio area.
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. At least one insurer, USAA, is giving discounts to homeowners who live in a Firewise USA community, a designation from the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit organization, to show that residents have reduced their fire. risk.
According to the association, there are 1,500 Firewise communities nationwide.
But mitigation measures take time and what defines a mitigation project is somewhat subjective, experts say. Many variables determine why one house burns and another does not.
Homeowners may end up getting advice from an expert like Trimarco, who go against those of an appraiser sent by their insurer to review the property, for example. 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 approach of the partners of the forest fire
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.
When Cook received the letter ending his insurance, he called Wildfire Partners for help. A week later, a specialist was at home and around the house behind the forest, reporting problems.
Elaine Thompson / The Associated Press
A house stands after surviving a forest fire near Cle Elum, Washington. The house had a defensible space around the structure, such as the lack of trees and brushstrokes against the house, preventing the flames from reaching it.
"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 StatelineRequests for comments.
Tanya Robinson, communications consultant at Allstate, said in a statement that in general, the insurer 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 that such fires will continue to ravage communities, local governments should consider banning the construction of homes in certain areas, said senior firefighter from California to 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 Wildland Fire Protection. California. He also suggested updating forest fire warning systems and making buildings more fire-resistant, particularly those that can house evacuees after a disaster.