Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

A state insurance organization survey found Tuolumne and Calaveras counties have among the highest percentages of homes at a high to extreme risk for wildfires when compared to other parts of the state -a finding which could affect insurance rates and insurability.

The Insurance Information Network of California survey, released this past summer, assessed the wildfire risk for properties county-by-county. The report found that more than 80 percent of Tuolumne County's 31,244 homes are at high or extreme levels of wildfire danger. In Calaveras County, that number is 66.5 percent of the county's 27,925 homes.

The statewide rate is about 14.8 percent of California homes, and the Central Sierra Nevada counties had among the highest percentages of homes at risk. The only counties with higher percentages of "at risk" homes were Alpine, 86.2 percent, and Mariposa, 81.5 percent.

Only a handful of other counties statewide had a higher percentage of homes than Calaveras County with high to extreme risk levels: Mono (69), Nevada (74) and Trinity (78.6).

Tully Lehman, Insurance Information Network of California spokesman, said the survey looks at several factors when determining risk, including fuels, slope and road access. Many Southern California counties had a higher number of actual properties at the elevated risk levels than in this region, Lehman said.

"You don't have a huge number of homes that are exposed (in the Central Sierras). But your percentages are huge," Lehman said. "There's a lot people that are exposed at that high (elevation) level."

The study and others like it can affect home insurance rates and insurability.

Multiple area insurance agents say there are companies that simply won't write policies for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties' higher-risk zones. Those that do can charge substantially higher rates.

"There are some companies that won't write up in this area, period," said Tamelyn Job, of Cutler Segerstrom Insurance. "But we do have companies (that will). They look at every single risk before they write it."

Other local insurance organizations have seen a rise in recent years of underwriters unwilling to cover area. The reasons vary, from market forces to location to increases in fire danger.

"It's definitely not one cause. It's more of a composite approach," said Chris Caldwell of Sonora-based Caldwell Insurance Services. "It's definitely getting more challenging, the current market of getting a homeowner's policy."

Caldwell said that's especially true in some of the county's higher elevation communities, like Mi-Wuk Village, Cedar Ridge and above. Companies look at many factors when deciding fire insurance premiums for a property - terrain, fuel and vegetation, transportation routes, access to fire services and more.

An organization called ISO releases ratings for different communities based on fire services, which many insurance providers also use to decide rates.

Mountain communities are especially vulnerable to wildfire risks due to trees, terrain and often-remote locations. But Caldwell also said market forces also play a role in availability, especially with saturation. When one insurance provider reaches a certain density of properties it covers in a community, it is subject to higher risk levels. The more properties in one area, the higher the loss in the event of a wildfire.

Lehman also pointed to saturation as a common reason for fluxuation in insurance availability, especially in high-risk areas. If a company is "a little too exposed" in one area, it might look to cut back on risk.

"But if one (provider) says we can't, there should be another one who comes in and says we'll do it," he said.

For the most extreme cases, when no private insurance provider will cover a home, California has a program called Fair Access to Insurance Requirements to provide basic coverage. Those cases are rare, and according to both the FAIR program and the California Department of Insurance, numbers of participants in FAIR statewide have been slowly falling.

Job, of Cutler-Segerstrom Insurance, said "they should always be able to get something" for coverage, especially with the FAIR program. She said she has not had customers who have used the program, though she has heard of some in the area who have.

Mike Harris, spokesmanfor FAIR, says that shows there's still a market for insuring riskier Mother Lode properties even if the market is hardening a bit.

"Is it available? Yes. Is it affordable? Maybe not as much," Harris said.