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Farmers Insurance agent Bob Rouland of the Rouland Insurance Agency in Chester, with assistance from fellow agent and office manager Sherry Hunt, leads a presentation inside the CPUD conference room Feb. 25 to update audience members on the crisis facing homeowners over the ever-increasing cost of fire insurance in Plumas County. Photo by Stacy Fisher

Few insurance options available for homeowners

Over two-dozen residents attended an evening presentation inside the Chester Public Utility District conference room Feb. 25 to hear from Farmers Insurance agent Bob Rouland of the Rouland Insurance Agency in Chester for an update on the crisis facing homeowners over the ever-increasing cost of fire insurance in Plumas County.

Karen Lichti, Chester Fire Department public information officer, was also on hand at the meeting to announce her retirement from the Chester Fire Department, but said she would still remain an active member on the Chester Firewise Committee.

The Firewise campaign seeks to educate the public on how to “harden” their homes against wildfire, a subject that would become part of the discussion later in the meeting.

Rouland with assistance from fellow agent and office manager Sherry Hunt spoke to the audience and answered questions from the podium for approximately an hour and a half to update attendees on what they could expect with respect to insurance rates in the coming months, and unfortunately the news wasn’t good.

The rising cost of homeowners insurance, triggered by a substantial upturn in the extent and duration of fire season due in large part to such factors as longer dry periods along with abundant forest undergrowth and decaying vegetation, threatens to exceed many people’s budgets — or worse — become unattainable as insurance companies leave the market altogether or cancel policies en mass in areas deemed too risky to insure, said Rouland.

Finding affordable coverage is an issue that not only affects residents in Plumas, but throughout the state of California.

“Insurance companies are getting scared,” Rouland told the group. “They don’t really want to underwrite policies anymore” for dwellings located in forested or mountainous regions where fires can be the most destructive to their bottom line.

“I’ve been doing this [providing insurance services] for 38 years in Chester, and I have never experienced anything like this,” with the rapid changes happening in the industry.

“We hear that homeowners can always get fire insurance,” he said, “but at what cost?”

Rouland noted that premiums are now based on so-called FireLine scores, which are determined by combining several risk factors regarding the location of a home and its susceptibility to wildfires.

Insurance companies want to know how well a property is protected to reduce the risk of having to satisfy massive claims.

Every house that’s being insured is fully inspected to determine its FireLine score, said Rouland, employing a list of critical criteria that could affect the risk of home loss, such as fuel sources like grass, trees or dense brush that can feed a wildfire.

The higher the score the costlier the premiums, he said. If a score is rated above a predefined value, insurance companies may refuse to insure the home at all.

Both Rouland and Hunter described how many insurance companies now want to know how well-equipped your local fire department is, the number of firefighting personnel that are available on a full-time basis, typical response times and the distance to your house from the fire station and other details, as well as whether there are at least two paved roads within 600 feet of your dwelling so that emergency vehicles have access during a conflagration and to demonstrate you have more than one escape route.

Hunter noted that if you live in less accessible areas like a dead end street for example, “then you need to keep the insurance you have now” as long as possible, because, Rouland jumped in, “Renewals have become astronomical.”

Other considerations include such factors as whether your home is bordering a slope or has a dense forest surrounding it, and the distance a home is to the nearest fire hydrant.

Rouland warned that, “Many insurance companies will now no longer insure a home that has a wood shingle roof.”

He said there are essentially two building code standards in Plumas County: The Plumas County Planning Department’s building codes that provide citizens the guidance to develop property following the guidelines set forth in the Plumas County General Plan, and building codes that have become mandatory by many insurance companies, including closing spaces under eaves where embers could accumulate underneath and initiate combustion, and from other open areas like those found under roofed porches.

Tree placement and plant and shrubbery locations, plus the height of bushes are also considered before a policy may be underwritten.

“I know it sounds insane, but there are companies that don’t allow a flowerpot on your deck that’s next to your house.”

Continuing, Rouland noted that we live in a community where many use firewood to heat their homes, which means “stacked firewood must be at least 30 feet from any structure on your property,” according to rules set down by the insurance industry.

Lichti expressed her belief that to a certain extent insurance companies do recognize the value of Firewise strategies and consider such efforts when scoring homes for fire safety, which includes the removal of hazardous trees or cutting off overhanging branches, clearing debris at least 30-feet from structures and eliminating flammable materials altogether such as dried leaves and pine needles from your property, among other remedies.

“All the carriers are hiring inspectors and sending them out” before a renewal is authorized, Hunter said, “and they’re sending them with drones,” with cameras that “fly above your roofline and zoom in on any defect” as they define the term (no pine needles or clogged roof gutters). “They’re getting extremely strict” on every home they insure.

“And they have the right to do it anytime they want,” Rouland interjected. “They don’t have to tell the homeowner when they’re arriving,” except as a courtesy he added.

Rouland said he is happy to provide a complete list of ancillary building codes mandated by insurance companies to clients or anyone interested in knowing if their home is in compliance.

Failing to find a premier insurance company willing to underwrite a policy, Hunter said residents could still apply for the pricey California FAIR plan as a last resort. But because the plan only covers loss of home and personal property from fire, Rouland recommended that homeowners should also buy a companion policy that would cover liability and other types of losses, which means even greater cost to the consumer.

Hunter mentioned that even when homeowners come up short finding traditional insurance companies, the FAIR plan, comprised of all insurers authorized to transact basic property insurance in California by pooling resources, still isn’t guaranteed to everyone needing coverage if they don’t meet specific guidelines.

In his opinion, Rouland said he foresees in the not too distant future the FAIR plan being the only one that’s available to many living in mountainous and forested areas.

He did say that mortgage companies would provide the necessary insurance for those unable to find any in the marketplace, but only covers the loan amount that remains on a home in the event of a catastrophic incident. “Not to mention the premiums are extremely expensive,” adding that no matter who insures you, “read the fine print to make sure smoke damage is covered” as well, since your home may survive a wildfire, but be seriously damaged by smoke nevertheless.

As a side note, Rouland alleged that there exist some unscrupulous insurance companies that temporarily underwrite home policies to build up its reserves then cancel the policies after just a short time period. “It should be illegal, but it’s not. I don’t know how they get away with it.”

Hunt reminded the audience members that the problem of finding affordable coverage started after the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history and the most expensive natural disaster in terms of insured losses, wiping out the town of Paradise in Northern California’s Butte County, killing several dozens of people and leading to billions in claims.

One of the individuals in the audience spoke up to say that based on her understanding the state of California is aware of the issue, but is limited on what can be done to ameliorate the problem, “because the state cannot order a business to lose money or force it to provide coverage it refuses to make available.”

Today, the North State and in particular our local region is experiencing dry weather once again, and the next fire season is technically just a couple of months away.

The month of February has atypically produced a lack of snow and rain this year, with the first week of March so far showing little to no moisture in the forecast.

Another season of intense conflagrations statewide may mean homeowners will be left floundering for fire insurance again this year and beyond.

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