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It's Becoming Increasingly Hard For California Homeowners To Get Insurance


After nearly six weeks of back-breaking work, the largest fire in California history is fully contained. The Thomas Fire left behind charred landscape that led to deadly mudslides in the southern part of the state earlier this week. We'll hear from a woman who survived those mudslides in a few minutes. First, NPR's Nate Rott reports on another aftershock of California's wildfires. It's getting harder for homeowners to find insurance.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Alyce Hicks, like many people in California's Sierra Nevada foothills, has always taken a proactive approach to dealing with wildfire risk. She clears out dead or dying trees on her property.

ALYCE HICKS: I make sure the roof is clean, the gutters are clean.

ROTT: And she keeps her lawn clear of debris. When fire crews do their annual inspection of her home, Hicks says...

HICKS: They just give me a high five and go on their way. I mean, nobody even has to stop. They can see it's clear - no problem.

ROTT: But a couple of years ago not long after a wildfire burned nearby, Hicks got a notice saying her insurer of 35 years was dropping her policy.

HICKS: This property - blah, blah, blah where I live - no longer qualifies for coverage under the program due to the wildfire exposures.

ROTT: More than 80 percent of the homes in Hicks' county are now categorized as high or very high fire risk. That's according to Dave Jones, the commissioner of California's Department of Insurance. And his concern is that in the wake of the destructive wildfire year California just left behind...

DAVE JONES: This problem will continue to grow, and it will expand into areas that have been traditionally viewed as lower-risk.

ROTT: Jones points to fires in Northern California's wine country last year that even burned in urban areas.

JONES: Whole neighborhoods destroyed.

ROTT: He says he expects that when insurance companies update their risk models, those urban losses and similar ones in Southern California from the more recent Thomas Fire will be included. The result will be more expensive homeowner insurance for everyone over time and more areas where private insurers aren't offering coverage at all. Janet Ruiz is the California spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade association for insurance companies. And she knows fire risk all too well. She lives in Santa Rosa, where the wine country fires killed dozens last year.

JANET RUIZ: We were evacuated, but the fires didn't end up coming over a ridge that it would have had to come over to come into Rohnert Park.

ROTT: Ruiz says insurance companies want to insure homeowners, but there's a reason that they're dropping certain policies.

RUIZ: Because they spread their risk or manage their risk in particular areas.

ROTT: An insurance company doesn't want more risk than they could potentially pay out. Insurance claims for the Northern California wildfires alone have already topped $9 billion. Dave Jones, the insurance commissioner, is pressing lawmakers to make it harder for insurance companies to drop homeowners for wildfire risk. After all, he says, insurance is only going to be more important as climate change leads to more disasters. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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