Wildfires Make Homeowner’s Insurance Harder to Come By

In Western states and other parts of the country that are prone to wildfires, homeowner’s insurance is getting harder to come by and insurance companies are requiring policyholders to tend to the space around their homes to reduce the chances of the house going up in flames.

If the policyholder doesn’t comply, they risk having their coverage non-renewed or see their rates increase.

Some insurance companies have started pulling out of certain areas that are prone to wildfire, or they are only writing coverage for homes whose owners have made a “defensible space” around their homes. These spaces are designed to keep combustible landscaping and structures away from the house, and they stretch for more than 100 feet.

Shopping around for home insurance now requires planning and patience on the part of homeowners. Here’s why:

  • Some insurers have pulled out of some areas. Others have cut back on the number of homes they will insure in a certain area or region in order to manage their exposure to future wildfire claims.
    Since 2014, more than 15,000 homeowners in medium or extreme fire-risk areas in California have turned to the state’s lender of last resort, the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements Plan, which was created to serve people unable to find coverage elsewhere.
  • Prices are increasing. Because of the increasing frequency of wildfires, homeowner’s insurers have been raising rates to account for the higher risk homes in the West face, as well as higher rebuilding costs.
  • More selective underwriting. Instead of ceasing to issue new homeowner’s policies altogether, many insurers are only choosing to write policies for homeowners who have taken steps to reduce the chances of a fire.

Securing coverage

Insurance companies now use satellite data to assess fire risk at a given location. They use tools that weigh factors such as topography, vegetation, wind patterns and accessibility.

There’s been an increase in insurance companies doing inspections before they will renew a policy or insure a new home.

This is happening most often in neighborhoods known as “urban-wildland interface zones” and areas considered to be at risk for wildfires.  The insurer will either send its own staff or contract with an outside inspector.

After an inspection, the insurer will either decline to extend coverage, accept it with no additional stipulations or require that the homeowner make certain repairs or improvements if they want coverage. This depends on the insurance company.

Typical improvements

Here’s what you can do to make your home more insurable in a wildfire-prone area:

The structure

Roof – Roofs made of wood or shingles are at high risk in a wildfire. Reroof with composite shingles, metal or tile if you can. Eaves and downspouts should be protected with fire-resistant or non-combustible materials.

Windows – Replace single-pane glass windows with dual-pane glass, to reduce chances of breakage in a fire.

Vents – Vents on homes create openings for flying embers. Cover all vent openings with inch metal mesh. Do not use fiberglass or plastic mesh, as it can melt and burn.

Siding – Wooden boards, panels and shingles are combustible. Your home will be better protected by building materials such as stucco, fiber cement, wall siding, fire retardant, treated wood, or other approved materials.

Defensible area

One of the keys to the defensible space around your home is making sure that all plants are well watered and not dying and dry. Use the following three-ring approach to minimize fire risk:

Very near home: In the first 5 feet surrounding any structure, avoid anything flammable – this includes plantings, but also mulch, woodpiles, and furniture, decorative items, and stored items. There should be no trees in this area.

6-30 feet from home: Use low ground cover such as mown grass, flowers, vegetables and mulch. Plants should be watered as needed and routinely maintained to remove dead/dry material. Remove all dead plants, grass and weeds. Remove dead or dry leaves and pine needles from your yard, as well as from roof and rain gutters. Trim trees to at least 10 feet away from the house.

31-100+ feet from home: Shrubs and trees should be well spaced and pruned to eliminate fuel ladders, where fire can climb from a ground fire to an ember-producing crown fire. Cut or mow annual grass down to a maximum height of 4 inches.  Create vertical spacing between grass, shrubs and trees.