With fires burning across California devastating entire communities, homeowners are beginning to file claims with their insurance companies. But in the mountains of eastern Madera County, many homeowners say they’re losing their insurance during a time when they could need it most.
Frank Ealand lives in an area near Coarsegold in the foothills of eastern Madera County that insurance companies call a fire prone zone. He says in the past three years his homes have gone without insurance after being dropped by companies three times.
“They don’t look at the property, they look at their map and say no,” says Ealand. “On the other house they never canceled it, but they did raise the rates from $700 a year to over $2,000 a year.”
In response, he’s fire-proofed the couple acres he lives on surrounded by dry grass and oak trees. He’s mowed it down to the stubs, put gravel around his home and used cement siding on his house instead of wood. He’s even gone further than most people. He has his own personal fire truck. He’s had to use it once to put out a fire on his neighbor’s property.
“Their fence was on fire, so I went down and banged on their door and the pump was not working, so they had no water,” says Ealand. “So I came home and got the fire truck and went down and put their fence fire out.”
But he says that’s still not enough to get affordable home insurance. Ealand is just one of many in the area in similar bind.
In August, Bass Lake resident Theresa Wilson says her insurance dropped her three story home after 22 years.
“I’ve only had one claim in all of those years with my insurance company and they wouldn’t even talk to me,” says Wilson. “Just the non-renew and that was that. My insurance went from $1,400 a year to $3,200 a year.”
The increases and the non-renewal notices stem from a few things. Brian Harper, with Farmers Insurance in Oakhurst, says his company predicted around five years ago that the area would burn because of poor forest management and because of the effects of climate change, millions of dead trees and overgrown brush.
“The insurance companies, not just Farmers, but other insurance companies as well, had the foresight to say something’s changing,” Harper says. “We’re in the middle of the drought. It seems to be that is the logical reason that they saw it coming and then of course we have a bunch of fires that totally vindicates all the changes that they’ve made.”
Harper says insurance companies have to assess how much risk they can take on. As a result companies are either doing nothing, sending out non-renewal notices, raising premiums or not taking on new clients. Another issue insurance companies are factoring in is that the Madera County Fire Department is short-staffed.
“There’s just not enough volunteers and there’s not enough fire engines to meet the need in the underserved but populated areas of Madera County,” says Nancy Koerperich who doubles as Madera County’s fire chief and the CAL FIRE unit chief for Madera, Mariposa and Merced.
About half of Madera County’s 17 fire stations have at least one full time firefighter. The others rely only on volunteer firefighters and most of them only have one volunteer. The county also has a partnership with CAL FIRE that helps augment the shortage. But the crews with CAL FIRE are pulled across the state when fires spark, like they are currently.
“If we had another large fire in Madera or Mariposa our resources are going to be at minimal levels,” says Koerperich. “We’re down to not just our backups, but even what we would consider our next backups. One person on a fire engine is a dangerous situation.”
And insurance companies don’t see a station with one firefighter as a resource that can do much. Across the industry companies have different formulas to calculate risk. This combined with climate change and the health of the forest raise that risk. The county tried to pass a measure earlier this year for a sales tax that would’ve used the funds collected to hire more full-time firefighters. It didn’t pass.
Janet Ruiz is the California representative with the Insurance Information Institute. She says insurance companies really do want to help people, but have to make sure they have enough funds to protect those they represent.
“The main thing is that we want to be able to pay our claims, we want to rebuild, we want to help people recover,” says Ruiz. “So we are anticipating how much we each can handle.”
Ruiz says when a homeowner’s insurance is dropped or premiums are raised they should shop around with local agents and then online, because there are affordable options out there. She says it may take time to find one and to think of the process like shopping for auto insurance.
“People don’t think about that in a home,” says Ruiz. “They tend to shop a lot for an insurance on an auto, but on a home they sometimes don’t think about, hey, I should go shopping. I should find out what else is out there.”
For people like Frank Ealand who have shopped around and still can’t find an affordable option they’re just going without insurance. He also doesn’t have a mortgage.
“I figure I can take care of it myself,” Ealand say. “Rolling the dice. I’m not worried about fire coming at me from the outside. My risk is fire from the inside by something going wrong here.”
But for those who still have a mortgage and are having insurance issues they’ll have to take a higher premium no matter the cost.