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New abnormal: Fire insurance nightmares

You know, sometimes it’s OK to get mad, really mad. Now is such a moment.

Back in the early 2000s, I used to dream of retiring and moving to Plumas County, otherwise known as heaven on earth. Finally, in February 2015, I bought a home in Quincy with my husband, Capt. Joe. It was the closest my Alaska guy was willing to get to civilization in California.

Between us, we had owned 12 houses over our lifetimes. We considered ourselves knowledgeable buyers. Oh, how wrong you can be.

When we started the purchase process — almost five years ago now — I called State Farm, with whom I’d been insured since I was 17 years old. They had insured every home and car I had ever owned.

I told them we’d have a ton of defensible space, a house made of concrete and Hardie board, a filled 1,500-gallon water tank located 20 feet from the house and sparse vegetation because we would be living on a rock.

They said, “We don’t insure your zip code (95971).” I was astounded. What? But they gave no quarter.

So we went with Capt. Joe’s company, GEICO, and literally 45 days after we closed escrow, they cancelled our new homeowners insurance policy. We were on a 45-degree slope and more than one mile from a fire station. What? Wait a minute, you saw our house on Google Earth when we applied and you insured us. Now this?

Scrambling to immediately secure another insurer and a new policy, we got our next shock: GEICO was totally within their rights to KEEP 25 percent of our prepaid annual premium. And they did. I was informed this is standard practice with insurance companies. Welcome to the mountains.

Unable, on our own, to find any company that would cover us for fire, we turned to a broker out of Susanville. The clock was ticking. We had to have home and fire insurance. He signed us up with Lloyds of London for a hefty increase and they only covered us for fire. We had to purchase a “wrap-around policy” from someone else for our personal belongings and other hazards like storm damage or vandalism. Again, what??

The very next year, in spring 2016, Lloyds of London “declined” to renew us. No reason, no explanation; it was a Seinfeld moment of “No more soup for you!” and no more fire insurance for us.

Again, we turned to the broker. He tried other insurance lines without success and we were signed over to the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan, the insurance of last resort that was created in July 1968 following brush fires and riots of that decade. It’s an insurance pool. They boosted our policy costs, too, and again we had to buy a wrap-around policy for everything else besides fire.

Then came a tough winter and some 2017 storm damage that broke our living room windows.

The wrap-around Farmers Insurance adjuster out of Truckee stood in our house and said, “Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger. We’re never gonna cover any of this. You can’t prove it was the winter or any storms that did this. Could be just normal wear and tear. Or your windows were improperly installed. I’ve gotta go now, have a nice day.”

Capt. Joe and I shelled out for 11 new windows ourselves.

In 2018, we gladly participated in the local defensible space senior assistance program to further protect and defend our property — God bless those hardworking guys and all the additional clearing they’ve done for us. They came back this year and we hope to see them in 2020.

Now. Capt. Joe and I are looking at backup generators, rooftop sprinkler systems and going for at least another 100 feet of defensible space. Still, both the wrap-around policy and the California FAIR Plan policy went up a chunk. Again.

Since we bought the house in 2015, our total insurance cost has nearly doubled. I’m concerned the latest rate hikes may not yet account for the dire Butte County Camp Fire and I’m actually afraid to even be writing this stuff down because who knows what will come next? They’re already red lining me. Will the insurance industry retaliate because I published my opinion? Capt. Joe is worried. “Maybe don’t write about this,” he says.

Feather Publishing has run a series of excellent news stories about this burgeoning crisis of coverage.

Today, Victoria Metcalf has a an outstanding piece about California Department of Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara’s personal visit to Plumas County that talks about what he can and cannot do to help us.

On Oct. 9, Linda Satchwell did a top-notch piece when she covered the Graeagle meeting where Ted Dobbs, insurance underwriter, advised the audience to pay whatever insurance bills they get and consider themselves lucky to have it.

All around us, people are being cancelled or facing catastrophic premium increases, even when they’ve taken measures to make their properties safer.

As home sales dry up, workers wonder if they can even afford to live here, seniors can’t move away or even afford to stay and residents struggle to meet these financially ruinous bills, the damage to our rural economy could ripple throughout every community where “people live near trees,” as Mr. Dobbs said in Graeagle.

I’m gonna be honest — I have no sympathy for the insurance companies. They have been only too happy to accept thousands of dollars from me and millions from all of us for many, many years.

The California Department of Insurance website publicly states, “Insurers collect $310 billion in premiums annually in California.”

Annually, folks.

And now, insuring us is too much risk? They’re IN the risk business and well compensated for it, too.

On a happier note, I want to personally thank the Plumas County Board of Supervisors for everything they are doing to bring the urgency of this insurance crisis to Sacramento’s attention. With Commissioner Lara’s visit and some new action in legislature, it seems to be working.

Lara’s office issued an Oct. 2 press release thanking Gov. Gavin Newsom for signing two new bills designed to address this insurance crisis. Of course, the burden is still largely upon us, the property owners, to solve it. But it’s a beginning.

SB 190, authored by Senator Bill Dodd of Napa, creates statewide defensible space requirements to reduce wildfire risks to communities.

AB 38, authored by Assemblyman Jim Wood of Santa Rosa, significantly encourages home hardening efforts through a California Wildfire Mitigation Financial Assistance Program for communities in forest and brush areas across the state.

With all of our Firewise Communities working so hard, our firefighting personnel giving everything they’ve got to keep these lands, people and structures safe, and property owners doing everything they possibly can to defend their own homes, our state legislators and Commissioner Lara are right to come to Plumas County to see how it’s done.

If you’ve got any questions, comments or concerns for Commissioner Lara about this coverage crisis, he told Plumas County last week that he encourages you to contact the California Department of Insurance’s Consumer Hotline at (800) 927-4357. I’d take him up on that offer.

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