Homeowners Facing Financial Pressure to Reduce Wildfire Risk

January 31, 2007

The combination of tree-killing droughts, dense forests, and continued sprawl of residential areas into forests has captured the attention of insurance companies. Several have begun to evaluate the homes of their policy holders on a case-by-case basis to assess their potential risk from wildfire damage, which can cost hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars, for a single fire.

As a result of stepped-up interest and onsite inspections, tens of thousands of homeowners in the western US will have to take steps to improve their homes and immediate surroundings, or face the prospect of adjusted premiums or dropped coverage. Other areas of the country that have occasional major fires, such as Texas and Florida, may come under the microscope in the future.

One of the first companies to begin paying greater attention to onsite details was State Farm Insurance Companies. From 2003 to 2005, the company assessed about 24,000 homes in AZ, CO, NM, NV, UT, and WY that were broadly considered to be at risk, and sent notices to those it determined needed some work.

Those homeowners are being given about 18-29 months to complete the work, and the deadlines will begin to take effect in the middle of 2007. The "danger zones" are generally close to the house, within about 30 feet. Existing policy holders won't be required to make major changes to the house itself, such as installing metal or other fire-resistant roofs, but new policy holders will be affected by such considerations.

A similar effort, affecting about 13,000 homes, began in 2005 in AK, ID, MT, OR, and WA, and the initial assessments are just about completed. Homeowners needing to make improvements will also be given some time, but possibly less than the 18-29 month span. In CA, the effort targeting about 4,500 homes began in 2006.

All told, owners of about 55% of the 41,500 or so homes affected will be asked to make improvements of some type around their homes, including 10-20% of the total who need to do what the company calls "major" work, such as tree-cutting.

Allstate Insurance Co. is taking some similar steps. In California - where the fire season never really ends, and about half the homes are exposed to some degree of elevated wildfire risk - the company reviews its new and existing policies with wildfire risk in mind, and is working with individual homeowners and local and state organizations to reduce wildfire hazards (Tips on Wildfire Prevention and Protection). Homeowners who don't comply with the company's recommendations for their site risk higher rates or nonrenewal.

  • Allstate: northern CA, Patti Kelly, 916-859-8611; southern CA, Pete Moraga, 310-390-3923.

In Colorado, Allstate began in September 2006 to assess the homes of selected existing policy holders, relying in part on the wildfire risk information provided by Marshall & Swift/Boeckh. By the end of 2007, Allstate expects to have authorized onsite inspections of at-risk homes in about 165 ZIP codes in many areas of the state. Following each inspection, the company will send any recommendations for improvements to the homeowner, who will have about a year to take action. Those who decline to respond adequately may have their insurance canceled.

Colorado spokeswoman Megan Brunet (303-779-3769) says that, at the moment, there are no plans to take similar steps in others states in her region that have some degree of fire danger, such as MT, SD, and WY.

In eastern WA, a similar program, but solely for new policies, began in November 2006, with just a few dozen homes affected so far. Recommendations address areas up to 1,000 feet away, says spokeswoman Caitlin Gorand (425-489-5174). She says there are no plans yet for similar efforts in AK, ID, or OR, or for evaluating any existing policies in any of the four states.

New policies in higher risk areas also are the sole focus in AZ, NM, NV, and UT, says spokeswoman Shelley Beeler (602-631-6227). AZ efforts started in late 2004, and the other three began in December 2006.

  • Allstate: national media: Mike Siemienas, 847-402-5600, or cell, 847-922-9228.

Check with other insurance companies in your area to find other policy holders who are being affected by similar efforts.

Along with the steps individual homeowners can take, there are a number of programs designed to reduce fire danger in the "wildland-urban interface" and other settings.

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