California’s increasingly destructive fire seasons have reignited concern about the availability and affordability of homeowners insurance in rural parts of the state.

The concern is even more pronounced in Tuolumne County, where residents continue to report issues with soaring premiums and policies not being renewed by insurance companies.

The county has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest percentage of homes in the state that insurance companies view as being in high to very-high risk areas for fire.

A report by the California Department of Insurance released in January stated that 24,607 of the 29,978 homes in the county, or about 82 percent, were considered to be high to very-high risk.

Since a year after the 2013 Rim Fire, county officials have heard pleas for help from residents who were experiencing difficulty keeping or finding affordable homeowners insurance.

The county Board of Supervisors put together a work plan on the issue in 2015 and began compiling testimonials with the hope of getting help from the state.

However, both state and local officials have experienced difficulty advancing regulations to protect consumers in the face of resistance from a powerful insurance lobby in Sacramento.

“It’s like trying to change the health care industry,” said Liz Peterson, a county administrative analyst. “It’s a very slow and frustrating process.”

Peterson said she’s participated in numerous meetings of the State Tree Mortality Task Force subgroup set up to look into the insurance issues affecting homeowners in rural areas.

Cal Fire officials have argued a key problem is that many insurance companies use tools to determine risk that don’t take into account proactive measures like fuel breaks, defensible space and other preventative improvements to homes.

“Insurance companies didn’t want to engage in the discussion too meaningfully,” Peterson said. “It was hard to bring them on board to what we would call the truth.”

Five insurers in five years

Lisa and Brian Gabrielson, of Sonora, will soon be going through their fifth homeowners insurance company since moving from Hayward in 2013.

The couple initially struggled to find an insurer that would cover their home and went through several companies over the years before landing with Nationwide.

They were notified by their broker in early 2017 that Nationwide would not renew their coverage unless they did extensive work to reduce fire hazards on the their 10-acre property by June 17 of that year.

Lisa Gabrielson said she and her husband spent about $1,000 for a professional arborist to make sure their property was up to Cal Fire standards.

However, they were informed that it still wasn’t enough and would need to do even more costly tree removal work due to the number of the oaks on their property.

“We would have had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to do what they wanted us to do,” Lisa Gabrielson said.

Nationwide sent them a letter in December last year notifying them that their policy would not renewed in February, so they started shopping around for other insurers.

They eventually had to go with Scottsdale Insurance Company, an out-of-state provider that’s included on a list of approved “surplus line insurers” in California.

Such insurers are typically more expensive because they will protect against unique risks that regular insurance companies won’t cover.

The couple’s yearly premiums went from $1,400 to $2,400, which Gabrielson said they are fortunate enough to afford. However, she’s concerned about what’s happening to those who don’t have the extra money.

“I’m wondering about all of these people who own their homes outright, if they’re just saying forget the insurance,” she said. “Which would be a whole ‘nother problem if there was a disaster.”

‘Nerve wracking’

Kevin Anderson, of Sonora, said his parents went through a similar situation with their insurance company in 2016.

The company wanted some work done that involved limbing and removing trees on their property in East Sonora that would have likely cost thousands of dollars.

On top of that, Anderson said the company only gave them about a month to complete the work.

Anderson said he was able to help them take care of what the company wanted, but then the company came back with more requests.

“When we sent them pictures to show we had complied with their wishes, that’s when they started talking about the neighbor’s property, taking out ornamental plants that are regularly watered, and removing even more trees,” he said.

Anderson said they were ultimately able to keep the insurance after taking care of a few more of the company’s requests.

However, he feels like they are some of the lucky ones considering the county’s aging population.

More than one-third of the roughly 54,500 residents was age 60 or older in 2017, according population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It can be kind of nerve wracking, especially for people with a fixed income and don’t have family in the area or someone that can help them,” he said. “I think what was most nerve wracking for my parents was the mortgage requirements and having to have insurance.”

Taking on the insurance companies

State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has spoken out on the issue in the wake of a deadly fire season over the past couple of years that have killed dozens of people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes.

Last year’s fires killed 43 people and destroyed more than 10,000 structures in the state, more than than the previous 10 years combined.

Fires this year have already claimed several lives and destroyed more than 2,000 structures, with the typical end of the fire season still months away.

“I anticipate that we’re going to see more homes rate high or very-high risk,” Jones said to The Union Democrat in an interview last week.

Jones added that he expects more instances where insurers stop writing policies for homes in those areas.

In the January report, Jones provided a number of legislative recommendations to protect consumers and prevent the situation from getting worse.

Among the key recommendations would require fire-risk models used by insurance companies to be filed with and approved by the state Department of Insurance.

Over the past several years of studying the issue, Jones said they discovered that many of the models don’t take into account measures that homeowners and communities have taken to protect themselves from fire.

“We recommend that the models ought to be filed and approved with the department so steps that the individual homeowners and communities are taking are reflected in the models,” Jones said.

However, not a single state lawmakers has yet to introduce any of the recommendations in the report.

Jones blamed the lack of action on the “overwhelming influence of the insurance industry on members of the Legislature.”

“If you look at their lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions, therein lies the tale,” he said.

Despite the increasingly destructive wildfire activity in recent years, Jones said he’s not optimistic that will spur action given recent resistance to bills aimed at helping survivors of the 2017 fires.

Three of the bills the Department of Insurance sponsored this year to help fire survivors either died or have been held in suspense, while Jones said most of the others were amended to reduce their protections.

“We had some of the most destructive fires in California history in 2017 in terms of loss of life, structures destroyed, and acreage,” he said. Now, notwithstanding the calamity of 2017, the insurers were still successful in 2018 in stopping and getting watered down a whole host of bills that would help survivors with their recovery.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

This story has been edited to correct the insurance payment for Lisa and Brian Gabrielson. The amount was for a year.

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