Among the many consequences of the increasingly severe wildfires throughout the western US, homeowners in the areas of highest risk are finding that they may no longer be able to insure their property. Mortgage lenders generally insist on a property being insured, creating a catch-22.
As this article describes, insurers like State Farm classify properties according to their degree of fire risk. In some cases, the owners can take steps to mitigate that risk, such as clearing away vegetation from around structures, but that’s not always enough. Depending on a home’s location and the difficulty of accessing it with firefighting equipment, insurance companies might not cover it at all. “It doesn’t matter if they cut every tree and bush on their property; we would not insure it because of where it sits,” says a State Farm agent quoted in the article. As many as 10 to 15% of homes in Colorado, for example, fall into that category and are denied coverage.
Insurance companies use sophisticated algorithms and satellite data to determine how much risk is too much, taking into account topography and wind patterns as well as surrounding vegetation and the property’s accessibility. That doesn’t necessarily include the after-fire dangers in fire-prone areas, such as the erosion and mudslides that can affect properties that the fire itself missed.
The situation is similar in many ways to the one facing property owners in flood-prone areas. This article from Stormwater magazine highlights many of the problems that have faced the National Flood Insurance Program and the problems individual homeowners face in obtaining insurance.
The situation can get even more complex when FEMA updates its flood and hazard maps. As I mentioned here last year, FEMA’s maps are not the same thing as insurance maps—something the residents of Montecito, CA, learned after the devastating mudslides last January that followed the Thomas Fire. Although the flood insurance maps were still forthcoming, homeowners worried that the FEMA maps showing updated areas of risk would affect their property values—something many in flood-prone areas have grappled with in various parts of the country.
The classification of high fire risk and the inability to get insurance for a home—or prohibitively high premiums if insurance is available—will have a similar effect on property values and resale potential. The Stormwater article discusses programs like the Community Rating System, a pilot program that helps communities improve their floodplain management and defense against flood damage in ways that individual homeowners cannot do on their own—and, in the process, helps reduce insurance rates for the whole area. Could a similar approach work for fire-prone regions?