California bans insurers from dropping policies in wildfire areas

It will apply for one year after the Governor declared a state of emergency

Glen Cove Fire
Glen Cove Fire south of south of Vallejo, California, northeast of the I-80 Carquinez Bridge, October 27, 2019. Photo by @arrowstewtoe.

The California Department of Insurance is invoking a law passed in 2018 that bans insurance companies from dropping or refusing to renew homeowners policies in zip codes within or adjacent to the perimeters of recent fires. This will apply for one year after the Governor declared a state of emergency in October, 2018 and will affect at least 800,000 homes in wildfire disaster areas in Northern and Southern California. The action by Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara is the result of Senate Bill 824 that he authored last year while serving as state senator.

In his announcement about the localized ban, the Commissioner went a step further and called on insurance companies to voluntarily cease all non-renewals related to wildfire risk statewide until December 5, 2020.

Many homeowners in California are finding that the premiums on their policies have doubled or tripled in the last two years, and insurance companies in some cases are canceling or refusing to renew policies on residences in areas where wildfires have occurred. California’s property insurers are beginning to retreat from areas they identify as having higher wildfire risk.

Local governments are concerned that this trend could disrupt local real estate markets and cause property values to decline, reducing tax revenue available for vital services to residents such as fire protection, community fire mitigation, law enforcement, road repairs, and hospitals.

The California Department of Insurance has identified some of the zip codes affected by the temporary ban on dropping or refusing to renew homeowners policies. The following fires with the affected zip codes are listed: Saddleridge, Eagle, Kincade, Tick, Getty, Hill, and Maria.

CAL FIRE has not yet provided the fire perimeter maps for the Water, 46, Hillside, Easy, Sky, and Glen Cove Fires, therefore the zip codes near these fires is not yet available.


Opinion: Could this be a tipping point?

I have wondered for years when the insurance companies were going to drastically raise their rates or refuse to issue policies in wildfire-prone areas. I figured that when it occurred it could be a tipping point that could lead to broad positive actions affecting the resiliency of communities at risk from wildfires. Either that, or those areas could experience significant outward migration of residents, causing economic disruption.

Fire-prone communities, if they are going to survive over the long term, have to learn to live with fire. Sticking their heads in the sand and thinking fires can’t happen to them is not recognizing reality.

Earlier this year I wrote an article about “Five things that need to be done to protect fire-prone communities”. In areas where they are adopted insurance companies could recognize that homes would be less likely burn in a wildfire and adjust their rates accordingly.

Here are the broad areas that need to be considered:

  1. Home spacing and lot size
  2. Envelope of  the structure itself
  3. Home ignition zone
  4. Community infrastructure and planning
  5. Wildland-urban interface

The only effective way to ensure that residents understand and implement these five tasks is to make them mandatory by establishing Fire Codes at the local and state levels.

After the Tubbs Fire, homes in California town are being rebuilt without strong building codes

Above: Homes being rebuilt in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa. Screenshot from Sacramento Bee video.

In Santa Rosa, California the 1,200 homes that were destroyed in the 2017 Tubbs Fire are being rebuilt without a requirement that they adhere to the stricter building codes required in rural areas of California that would make them more resistant to being consumed in the next wildfire.

From the Sacramento Bee:

…Coffey Park [neighborhood] is rebuilding quickly: The community organization Coffey Strong says more than half of the 1,200 homes that burned down in 2017 are finished, and hundreds more are under construction.

But some wildfire experts wonder if Coffey Park isn’t courting danger by ignoring a state building code designed for wildfire-prone areas.

“They’re setting themselves up for the next disaster,” said Chris Dicus, a wildfire expert at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “I was disappointed to see they didn’t build up to code.”

Coffey Park residents seem resigned to the risk of another fire. They consider it part of the cost of living in a neighborhood they love. When asked about building codes, they say yes, another monster like the Tubbs Fire would be devastating — but no amount of fire-resistant roofing would likely change that.

“If it’s going to burn down, it’s going to burn down,” said Charlie Catlett, a retired physician who moved back home a little more than a week ago, after the latest evacuations were over.

Chapter 7A of the California Building Code designed for the state’s areas at high risk from wildfire can be optionally adopted by cities, but is mandatory in rural areas designated by CAL FIRE as being at high risk of wildfires. It lays out standards for roofs, exterior walls, vents in exterior walls and attics, windows, exterior doors, decking, and outbuildings.

Analysts studying the aftermath of the Camp Fire which destroyed much of Paradise, California found that homes built to fire-safe standards had a much higher survival rate than those that were not. Beginning in 2008 new construction in the city was required to follow Chapter 7A. Fifty-one percent of the homes built under that standard survived, while only eighteen percent built before 2008 did.

Headwaters Economics found that the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home.

Adopting sensible building codes is very important, but a holistic approach is required to keep from repeating wildfire disasters:

  1. Home spacing/ lot size
  2. Envelope of the structure itself
  3. Home ignition zone
  4. Community infrastructure and planning
  5. Wildland-urban interface

In April, 2019, we covered these five categories in more detail.

Six things that need to be done to protect fire-prone communities

We have to learn to live with fire

A reporter asked me what needs to be done to keep from repeating disasters like we have seen recently in California at Paradise, Redding, and the Napa Valley. I told him that there is no one thing that needs to be done, such as raking or “forest management”, it requires a comprehensive holistic approach.

The principle of the weakest link in the chain applies here. If one of the categories of improvements to protect a development is sub-par, the individual structures and the entire community in a fire-prone environment is at risk. And if a homeowner does not do their part, it can endanger their neighbors.

Reducing the chances that a fire in a populated area will turn into a disaster that burns thousands of homes involves at least five categories of factors: home spacing, envelope of the structure itself, home ignition zone, community infrastructure, and the wildland urban interface.

  1. Home spacing/lot size

Cities, counties, and planning boards are often under pressure to approve new housing developments. They want to expand their tax base. Developers try to fit as many homes into a new subdivision as possible to maximize their investment. This too often results in homes that are 20-feet apart. If one is ignited by a burning ember that may have traveled a quarter of a mile from a fire (or a burning home) the radiant heat alone can ignite the homes on both sides. Then you can have a self-powered conflagration spreading house to house through a city. When the structures are that close together, the homeowners have not reduced the fuel in the Home Ignition Zone, and the home itself is not built to FireWise standards, a massive disaster can be the result.

If a homeowner wants, or is required, to reduce the flammable material within 100 feet of their residence, what are they expected to do if there is another home 20 feet away that is really a large assembly of flammable material?

Paradise Camp fire homes burned
A neighborhood on Debbie Lane in Paradise, California, before and after the Camp Fire that started November 8, 2018. The homes were 14 to 18 feet apart.

Some of the homes in Paradise, California that burned were less than 20 feet apart. According to measurements using Google Earth, we determined that the structures in the photo above were 14 to 18 feet from each other.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology released a report on the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire that burned 344 homes and killed two people in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They concluded that current concepts of defensible space did not account for hazards of burning primary structures, hazards presented by embers, and the hazards outside of the home ignition zone. In addition, NIST recommended:

High-density structure-to-structure spacing in a community should be identified and considered in [Wildland Urban Interface] fire response plans. In the Waldo Canyon fire, the majority of homes destroyed were ignited by fire and embers coming from other nearby residences already on fire. Based on this observation, the researchers concluded that structure spatial arrangements in a community must be a major consideration when planning for WUI fires.

After studying the Carr Fire that destroyed 1,079 residences at Redding, California earlier this year, retired CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Royal Burnett reached similar conclusions.

It was easy to figure out why the houses on the rim burned — they were looking right down the barrel of a blowtorch. Even though they had fire resistant construction, many had loaded their patios with flammable lawn furniture, tiki bars and flammable ornamental plants. Palm trees became flaming pillars, shredded bark became the fuse, junipers became napalm bombs. Under current standards houses are build 6 to an acre; 10 feet to the property line and only 20 feet between houses. Once one house ignited, radiant heat could easily torch the next one.

2. Envelope of the structure itself

Included in this category are characteristics of the roof, vents, siding, doors, windows, foundation, fences, eaves, and decks. A FEMA publication (13 MB) has excellent detailed recommendations. Headwaters Economics found that the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home. When implemented, Chapter 7A of the California Building Code, regulates these features.

3. Home Ignition Zone

The NFPA and FireWise programs recommend reducing flammable material within 100 feet of structures and spacing trees at least 18 feet apart that are within 30 feet of the home. At the 60 to 100-foot distance tree canopies should be at least 6 feet apart. Another house that is 15 to 50 feet away is also fuel, and if it ignites will be a serious threat.

firewise wildfire risk home tree spacing
Firewise vegetation clearance recommendations. NFPA.

4. Community infrastructure and planning

  • Distance to nearby structures
  • Evacuation capability and planning
  • Safety zones where residents can shelter in place
  • Road and driveway width, wide enough for large fire trucks
  • Turnarounds at the end of roads
  • Signage, and
  • Emergency water supply.

Again, the FEMA document has great recommendations.

5. Wildland-Urban Interface

There is of course much that can be done surrounding the places where people live that would reduce the vegetation or fuel and decrease the intensity and ember generation potential of a fire as it approaches an urban area. Large scale fuel management projects including fuel breaks and prescribed fire programs are usually conducted by state and federal agencies.

Silverthorne, Colorado 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire
Fuel breaks at Silverthorne, Colorado during the 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire. USFS.

A fuel break does not have to be devoid of vegetation, but it should have minimal tons per acre that would therefore burn with less intensity and with fewer fire brands being lofted downwind. This could enable firefighters to make a stand and create a place from which to ignite a backfire, perhaps aided by aircraft dropping water or retardant.

6. Fire codes are essential

The only effective way to ensure that residents understand and implement these five tasks is to make them mandatory by establishing Fire Codes at the local and state levels.

Analysts studying the aftermath of the Camp Fire which destroyed much of Paradise, California found that homes built to fire-safe standards had a much higher survival rate than those that were not. Beginning in 2008 new construction in the city was required to follow a standard, Chapter 7A of the California Building Code, designed for the state’s areas at high risk from wildfire. Fifty-one percent of the homes built under the 7A code survived, while only eighteen percent built before 2008 did.

Chapter 7A lays out standards for roofs, exterior walls, vents in exterior walls and attics, windows, exterior doors, decking, and outbuildings. Remember, the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home.

The warming climate is demonstrating that wildfires are becoming increasingly perilous. It is the responsibility of state and local governments  protect their citizens by enacting sensible standards.