If you make improvements to your home so it is less likely to be seriously damaged or destroyed in a wildfire, it's only fair that your insurance bill should reflect that reduced risk...or at the very least, you should be able to find affordable home insurance.
But in California, there are no standards or rules for wildfire risk reduction home improvements. There are no guidelines or financial help for homeowners, and nothing to prevent an insurance company from dropping you as a customer, even if you've invested time and money into reducing your home's risk of being destroyed in a wildfire.
United Policyholders' Wildfire Risk Reduction and Asset Protection Project ("WRAP") aims to help create the standards, financial assistance and insurance assurance that will give Californians support and incentives to reduce their wildfire risk and be able to continue to protect their assets.
We were the primary drafter of legislation introduced in December, 2017 toward that end and are working with lawmakers and other stakeholders to advance constructive solutions. You generally can't force an insurance company to keep you as a customer, but you should be able to mitigate your fire risk so they will.
What does "mitigation" mean in this context?
"Mitigating", "hardening" and "fortifying" are words used to describe taking actions that reduce the risk of a structure being damaged by weather and other events. Wildfire risk reduction techniques include:
- vent screens that keep flying embers from entering a home
- creating "defensible space" by removing bushes and trees from around the perimeter of a structure
- fire resistant building materials on roofs and exterior walls
- applying fire resistant foams/gels/chemicals to the exterior of a home
- double paned windows
- sprinkler systems
What is UP doing to help homeowners reduce risk and keep insurance affordable?
We are working with the CA Department of Insurance, Firefighters, Public Officials, FireSafe Councils, Insurers and other stakeholders to create workable mitigation guidelines, inspection and assistance programs and rewards. Firefighters know a lot about maintenance and improvements that allow homes to survive wildfires. Our goal is for insurance companies to use that knowledge plus their expertise and resources to assist and partner with - not punish - their customers who live in brush areas.
We are working at the federal level to advance mitigation and insurance support/reward programs across the country. Our role as a consumer voice at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and the Federal Advisory Committee on Insurance gives us channels to do this work.
Why are mitigation support and insurance rewards so important?
Climate change, the drought, insect infestations, tree-mortality, data-mining and aerial surveillance technology have all combined to give insurance companies a serious case of the jitters about continuing to insure homes in brush areas. They are dropping long time customers, avoiding entire regions and imposing steep surcharges and rate increases on the customers they're still willing to insure. This is creating an affordability and availability problem for residents of brush areas throughout California and other states as well.
Elected officials turned to United Policyholders ("UP") for help in 2016 because of our wildfire and insurance expertise and our success solving similar challenges in the past. We began factfinding and relationship-building and accepted the invitation to join an Insurance Working Group that's part of a Tree Mortality Task Force (TMTF) that CA Governor Brown created to tackle the 102 million dead trees in his state. UP is engaged in ongoing work to promote mitigation and resiliency initiatives, including legislative approaches.
The problem is most severe for fixed income households that can't afford to make mitigation improvements or pay higher premiums, but need to stay insured. There are lots of printed materials that alert homeowners on wildfire risks. What people need is guidance and help making improvements that harden their homes and satisfy insurance company underwriters that it acceptable risk to insure. Insurers need standards to guide their business decisions and the steady hand of public officials to calm their jitters.
According to a recent UP statewide survey of over a thousand homeowners, 80% said their insurance company has not made any suggestions for home improvements to reduce risk, insurance costs or keep their coverage in place. 20% reported that they are struggling to pay for their home insurance.
Giving property owners incentives and support so they can be proactive in making their homes resistant to wildfire damage makes communities more resilient. Keeping insurance companies in the business of doing what they do best - assuming risk in exchange for profit - makes communities financially healthy. Let's do this!
United Policyholders is grateful to AT&T for the 2016 grant that launched this project.
- Wildfire Risk Reduction and Insurability
- USAA/Firewise Discount
- Tree Mortality Task Force
- 2017 California Home Insurance Survey
- Wildfire Partners
- Fire Safe Council of Nevada County
- Commissioner predicts shrinking insurance options for CA homeowners
- Wildfire Safety and Recovery Act - SB 824
- Department of Insurance Whitepaper on Availability/Affordability