Homes being rebuilt after a fire in Alpine / Photo by Ry Rivard

When we think about protecting people and communities from wildfires, we tend to think of immediate, short-term measures like access roads people can use to flee or mitigation to protect homes from flames.

But over the last several years, homeowners and lawmakers have grappled with a secondary problem as well: insuring homes in wildfire risk zones.

Insurance companies over the last few years have been dumping customers who live in fire-prone areas, including in San Diego County communities like Alpine.

“A lot is at stake when people have trouble finding insurance, because mortgages require insurance, so someone can lose their home to the bank unless they can find insurance,” Ry Rivard wrote.

As we reported in 2019, more and more San Diegans who live in areas at high risk of wildfires are being forced to rely on California’s FAIR Plan, an insurance plan of last resort.

In 2019, insurance companies declined to renew 235,274 policies statewide – a large jump from the year before – and the Department of Insurance estimates 65 percent of those non-renewals are for homes in high wildfire risk areas, according to a report prepared for the state Senate’s Committee on Insurance hearing this week.

The report also noted that farmers and ranchers in wildfire risk areas face a unique problem: “Unlike homeowners and many business property owners, farming and ranching operations do not have access to basic property insurance provided by the California FAIR Plan. If a farmer is unable to find insurance on the private market and lives on their farm, the FAIR Plan can only offer coverage for the home.”

Under a 2018 state law written by then-Sen. Ricardo Lara, who’s now the state’s insurance commissioner, communities in or near areas where a wildfire emergency has been declared can get a temporary reprieve from insurance policy cancelations. The state placed 16 ZIP codes impacted by 2020’s Valley Fire, most of which are in San Diego County, on the list of areas getting a yearlong reprieve in September 2020.

“Insurance companies largely haven’t been touched but the rates continue to rise, in some areas triple. In other areas, they’ve decided not to cover at all and that just goes against what seems reasonable in this process,” San Diego Sen. Ben Hueso said at Thursday’s hearing of the Senate’s Insurance Committee hearing. “We need to make insurance accessible to people who want to build in our state because were facing a fire crisis, we’re facing a pandemic, we’re facing an affordable housing shortage and as people want to invest in California and say, ‘You know we can’t build housing because it’s too expensive,’ it’s starting to ring too true when they not only have to take a risk in building the housing, but also risk not being able to get multi-family insured.”

Last week, state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins announced a policy outline created by the Senate’s Wildfire Working Group that includes working “with the Insurance Commissioner, insurance industry, and consumer and homeowners groups to account for [mitigation] efforts in the ratemaking process and to expand coverage availability for homeowners.”

Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, who represents Escondido and other parts of North County, touted her support for AB 1103, a measure that would allow ranchers and farmers access to their properties to rescue animals during a wildfire emergency.

“As we recall in the Lilac Fire in my district, over 50 horses & many other animals died because rescuers with trailers were prohibited from entering,” Waldron wrote on Twitter. “Some roadblocks allowed entry and others didn’t. We need standards. That’s why I support AB 1103.”

State of the State – and the GOP – Is Precarious

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state of the state address this week was unlike any other. It wasn’t delivered in the Capitol or even in Sacramento at all; he spoke from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Many of the lawmakers and state officials who’d typically be present tuned in virtually instead, and appeared on a screen in support of Newsom, including San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and Secretary of State Shirley Weber.

The speech itself was also different: It didn’t lay out specific policy proposals like Newsom has in the past. Instead, he centered the speech on equity as he discussed the pandemic’s toll and the state’s continuing response.

He didn’t use the word “recall” but addressed it pretty directly: “To the California critics, who are promoting partisan power grabs and outdated prejudices, and rejecting everything that makes California great, we say this: we will not be distracted from getting shots in arms and our economy booming again.”

To that end, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer continued making the rounds, criticizing Newsom and making the case that he deserves to be recalled.

Republicans, meanwhile, aren’t united in believing Faulconer is the right man to replace Newsom. Politico’s report on infighting over a potential challenger to Newsom is an entirely San Diego affair: Faulconer and John Cox, who’s also running, are from San Diego. Carl DeMaio is a Faulconer critic and is hoping Ric Grenell, who used to work in the San Diego mayor’s office, jumps into the race. Rep. Darrell Issa, meanwhile, has attacked DeMaio for attacking Faulconer.

Golden State News

Sofia Mejias Pascoe contributed to this report.

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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