Just as the fires were dying down on the South Coast, Redwood City resident Daniel Paley, who owns and rents a property in Miramar, got a notice from his insurance company Pacific Specialty that it was canceling his fire coverage. After more than two decades with the company, he was shocked then angry when he realized few others would insure him on the coast.
There wasn’t much he could do to change their position.
“The problem is there is no recourse,” Paley said. ”There is no one to go to.”
Homeowners across the Coastside and state are facing the same problem as Paley. The California Department of Insurance released its 2019 numbers last week, showing more than 2,000 San Mateo County residents were dropped by their insurance companies last year. That’s consistent with trends over the past five years. But even more notable last year was the spike in enrollment for the California FAIR Plan, which more than tripled from 2018 enrollment.
The California FAIR Plan is the last remaining coverage option for those who have lost their fire insurance or been priced out of the market. It is funded by insurance companies required to pay into it to operate in California, but a judge ruled earlier this year that it can only legally cover fire. That means homeowners will have to look elsewhere for another plan that covers things like water damage. Paley just enrolled in the plan, but has to wait for an inspection of his property before finding out how much it will cost.
Insurance decisions are increasingly out of the hands of homeowners like Paley.
Half Moon Bay Farmers Insurance Agent Joe Angelini explained that since the Oakland Hills Fire in 1991, insurance agencies have been much more careful when it comes to covering fire for high-risk homes. He said entire geographic areas used to be categorized on a risk scale, but with the advent of more precise mapping technology, there’s now a score for every individual home. His company still covers homes with moderate scores like those in El Granada, but won’t in extreme risk areas like La Honda. In such places, he instead offers companion policies to cover everything else.
The standardized map that Angelini and most insurance agencies across the state use is called FireLine created by risk-assessment company Verisk. Insurers can punch an address into the software and it will display the fire risk based on factors like vegetation, topography and road access. Every year, companies check customers’ scores and alter their policies in accordance with the map.
For someone like Paley, the fact that his Miramar property lies against a hillside raises his score just enough to knock him out of most coverage.
“It seems to me to be disingenuous by the fire insurance companies to just outright drop us because of something printed on a GIS map,” Paley said.
Even more frustrating for Paley is that any efforts he makes to make his home more fire safe won’t move the needle. Angelini said it’s because most fire precautions aren’t bulletproof, and FireLine mostly looks at neighborhood-scale risk.
But there may be some hope for residents who are losing their coverage in droves. After a public meeting earlier this month, California Insurance Commissioner
Ricardo Lara said he will take action to make fire risk scores more transparent and create insurance incentives to recognize homeowners’ efforts to secure their properties. r