Is Your Home In A Wildfire Zone? California Developing New Rules
Sacramento Bee (CA)
Feb. 8—Amid a continuing insurance crisis in California's wildfire country, multiple state agencies will work together to create a unified standard for "home hardening" — the business of making buildings and communities more resistant to fires.
The Department of Insurance announced Monday it will develop the standards in partnership with Cal Fire, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, the Public Utilities Commission and the Governor's Office of Planning and Research.
California already has some of the toughest fire-resilient building codes in the country for structures built since 2008, requiring fire-resistant roofing and other materials. The codes proved their worth when the Camp Fire destroyed thousands of homes in Paradise. A McClatchy investigation revealed that over half the homes built since 2008 were undamaged. Only 18% of the older homes went undamaged.
The announcement Monday comes as Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara attempts to convince insurance companies to resume selling coverage to desperate homeowners in fire-prone communities. Cal Fire has estimated that at least 3 million homes lie in these areas.
After paying tens of billions of dollars in claims from the Camp Fire and other California disasters in recent years, insurers have been abandoning high-risk regions. In the Sierra foothills, for example, insurers sent out 42,000 non-renewal notices to homeowners in 2019, the last year for which figures are available. That's nearly twice as many as the year before.
Those who can't get replacement coverage have to buy bare-bones policies from California FAIR Plan, the state's "insurer of last resort" — usually at two or three times what they'd been paying for traditional insurance. To make matters worse, the FAIR Plan just raised its rates by 15%.
Last year, Lara lobbied unsuccessfully for a bill that would have forced insurers to cover homeowners in communities that had been sufficiently "hardened" against wildfire risk. Insurance lobbyists fought the bill, saying they couldn't commit to selling coverage until the hardening standards had been established first.
After the bill died in the Legislature, Lara created a working group with insurance industry representatives to develop standards. The partnership between the state agencies announced Monday is designed to move that process forward.
"With home and community hardening standards in place, Californians can hope to save lives and property through safer homes and increase insurance availability at the same time," Lara said in a prepared statement.
Who shoulders the cost of home hardening?
The concept of home hardening has taken on increasing urgency as climate change exacerbates California's vulnerability to wildfires. California's building codes for new homes are widely considered the most effective in the country, requiring fire-resilient materials on roofs and siding, fine wire-mesh screens to prevent embers from flying through attic vents and other preventive measures.
At the same time, many experts say hardening individual homes is of questionable value because of the ability of wind-blown fire to spread from house to house, putting even the sturdiest structures at risk. As a result, Lara's group is studying standards for "community hardening," which could include tougher rules on maintaining brush-free "defensible space" around homes and entire neighborhoods.
Kate Gordon, director of the Office of Planning and Research, said the hardening standards will be "critical to California's goal of reducing wildfire risk while increasing our overall resilience." Gordon is also Gov. Gavin Newsom's senior climate policy adviser.
Creating standards is one thing. Fixing the problem is something else. Most of the homes in fire-prone areas are believed to have been built before the 2008 codes were in effect. With a new roof alone costing $10,000 or more, the cost of making older California dwellings fire-resilient could easily run into the billions.
Since the McClatchy investigation revealed the worthiness of fire-resilient homes, Newsom's administration has struggled to come up with funds to help homeowners pay for retrofits. His budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year includes $38 million to fund pilot projects; the governor's office also is trying to obtain federal dollars to help.
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