Becoming Firewise: Experts to discuss tips for homeowners in foothills
Special to The Union
Insurance Commissioner orders increased FAIR Plan coverage options
The California FAIR Plan is often regarded as the insurer of last resort for homeowners in need of coverage. As it has become more difficult for some residents to find policies, the state recently ordered the FAIR Plan to expand its policy options to be more comprehensive and to make it easier for people to make payments.
California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara announced this week he would be ordering the FAIR Plan to offer a comprehensive policy in addition to its current dwelling fire-only coverage by June 1, 2020. Also, he ordered the plan to increase its coverage limits from $1.5 million to $3 million, which must become effective by April 1, 2020.
Lara said requiring a more comprehensive policy – known as HO-3 coverage – will save consumers from having to purchase a second companion policy to cover other hazards such as liability, water damage and theft.
“I am taking this action after meeting with thousands of California homeowners across the state who are struggling to find coverage to protect their homes,” Lara said in a press release. “People forced to use the FAIR Plan as temporary insurance deserve the same coverage provided by traditional insurers.”
Under the order, the plan will also offer consumers with a monthly payment plan, and they will be able to pay by credit card or electronic funds transfer without added fees.
— Marysville Appeal-Democrat
Home insurance is becoming harder to find for residents living in high-risk wildfire areas. The lack of coverage is beginning to have an impact on everything from home values to tax revenues for jurisdictions across the state.
Smartsville resident Cassy Thorn has experienced the struggle firsthand, having had four different home insurance companies over the last year. Her first policy to be dropped happened back in May. After that, her next two policies were dropped right after she made payments. Each company has been more expensive than the last, and the situation has resulted in her mortgage payment increasing by $500.
“Both my husband and I have had to work more hours to try to cover the cost,” Thorn said.
They’ve since found a new insurance policy that ended up being cheaper, but it didn’t come without her family having to jump through some hoops first. Throughout the search, they’ve had to make a number of improvements around their home and property to make both more fire resistant.
One company refused a policy because the family’s propane tank wasn’t 300 feet away from their dwelling. Another one refused a policy unless they removed the false wood siding on their home and replaced it with stone or a different non-flammable item. One company even required they take down their above-ground pool, only to drop them from coverage a few weeks later.
“They are getting super picky about who they cover and what,” she said. “We have a large family, which results in a lot of extra cars at our place. One company came out and told us if any of them were not running, the company wouldn’t cover the property with them on it.”
This is the new normal for homeowners in areas like the Yuba County foothills. Kate Wilkin, forestry, fire science and natural resource advisor for the local branch of UC Cooperative Extension, said while some insurance companies are willing to explain to homeowners some of the new requirements they must meet to qualify for a policy, some others aren’t even willing to discuss specifics.
Wilkin said the best thing all homeowners – not just those living in heavily wooded areas — can do to better protect themselves from a potential wildfire is regular maintenance.
“I think maintenance is the unsung hero in all of this,” Wilkin said. “There are important areas to a house, which are the roof, deck and the vegetation around it. If you modify the vegetation around the house, how your house is clad becomes less important. For many people in Yuba County, if they were to modify the plants around their homes, they wouldn’t likely need to invest as much in the structure itself.”
New requirements come down to making homes and properties more resistant to a flame front of a wildfire or the embers from fires that can wreak havoc during high-wind events.
“I never use the term ‘fire-safe’ because I think that’s a misnomer. I think we can be fire-wise or fire-adapted by trying to understand the complexities of fire and adapting to that,” Wilkins said.
While defensible space around a person’s home can help, it isn’t the cure-all. Wilkins said one new recommendation is to remove any fuels that are within five feet of a house and deck. Instead of landscaping, another option is to hardscape a property by placing rock or decomposed granite, or just to leave bare mineral soil.
“Those are some simple things you can do that don’t cost much money,” she said. “When it comes to your home, one of the ways embers can get into a house is through the vents that connect to a basement or attic, so upgrading your vents to make them more resistant is important.”
One cheap, short-term solution for reinforcing vents is to place 1/8th inch chicken wire behind the vents to reduce embers that can pass through, she said. A long-term solution is saving the money to invest in new systems that are made specifically to snuff out embers.
Wilkins will be providing a presentation on various fire-resistant upgrades residents can make to their homes and their property at an upcoming Yuba Watershed Protection and Fire Safe Council meeting on Nov. 21 at the Brownsville Community Center – 17103 Ponderosa Way, Brownsville.
The community meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m., will also include a presentation from Nicole Roldan-Leben, who is with USDA-Rural Development, about grant and low-interest loan programs that are available to residents that can help with safety upgrades.
Steve Andrews, coordinator of the fire safe council, said the discussion will also touch on a grant that was awarded by the Yuba Water Agency that will assist communities, neighborhoods and homeowner’s associations form fire-wise sites, where participants come up with a plan and list of tasks that residents can do to make their homes more fire safe, and at the same time make them more likely to be insurable.
“We also have plans to implement a new program where we will be training and recruiting volunteers from the fire safe council to go out and do fire safe inspections and to help people who are looking for advice,” Andrews said.
Aside from the upcoming special community meeting about fire safety, Andrews said, the Yuba Watershed Protection and Fire Safe Council meet on the second Wednesday of each month at 9:30 a.m. inside the Alcouffe Center – 9185 Marysville Road, Oregon House.
Jake Abbott is a reporter for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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