Beware insurance rate hikes in wildfire areas |

Beware insurance rate hikes in wildfire areas

Janice Kurbjun
Summit County Correspondent
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Published: The Fort Collins Coloradoan, Dawn Madura AP
AP | The Fort Collins Coloradoan

When a Breckenridge area homeowner received an insurance policy cancellation notice earlier this year for his insurance policy because he didn’t have sufficient defensible space, Red, White and Blue Fire District Battalion Chief Kim Scott went to bat with Allstate insurance company to try to identify appropriate requirements for Summit County policy holders.

Scott said the homeowner was required to create 200 feet of defensible space surrounding his home. When property parcels aren’t generally that large in the county, such guidelines are nearly impossible to satisfy.

Another property, a condominium without much land, was required to have 100 feet of defensible space to be covered – when it’s surrounded by roads and wetlands.

Scott said many insurance companies, often headquartered in Nevada and California, are reassessing their wildfire policy requirement – in some cases, dropping policies, in others, raising rates if guidelines aren’t met – based on significant losses in the Front Range’s Four Mile Canyon fire as well as others in their home states in recent years.

And as the companies try to protect themselves and potentially drop coverage through blanket requirements, there’s a need for homeowners and fire districts to provide education on the risk factor analysis process and helping drive the coverage conditions, Scott said. For the insurance company, creating guidelines that are appropriate for an area’s fuel load and weather patterns will help them reduce client loss due to “outrageous” fees for insurance, Scott said.

To further complicate matters surrounding wildfire coverage, most homeowners aren’t thinking about wildfire – and associated changes in their policies – in the middle of winter.

She suggested homeowners pay close attention to their policy as their renewal period approaches. Calling the insurance company to inquire about increased premiums or dropped coverage likely won’t result in a straightforward answer, she said. Any changes will appear in the policy’s documentation.

Homeowners should also take a proactive approach, she added, such as contacting the local fire district for a free risk inspection and to identify areas where mitigation is appropriate. She said more than 200 inspections were done in the Red, White and Blue Fire District (running from Farmer’s Korner to Hoosier Pass) in 2009, and about 100 were done in 2010.

In addition, Scott said homeowners should occasionally shop around for the best coverage per dollar spent. If one company is raising the rates, perhaps another is providing more satisfactory coverage for the money.

If problems do arise, Scott said the local fire district can help homeowners find ways to satisfy the demands of insurance companies, including potentially tapping into county money meant for mitigation efforts.

The fire district can also help initiate a discussion to help insurance agents understand what a homeowner is doing to mitigate risk in a particular area. That way, the homeowner and agent can then work with the underwriter to ensure coverage is in place and adequate.

Scott said the insurance inspector missed several small things the homeowner could do to reduce risk in wildfire – other than broaden the defensible space in Summit County, where weather patterns, elevation, fuel loads and wind patterns are different than in Nevada and California.

“They missed some simple things like limbing up trees” to remove risk, Scott said. Moving stacked wood away from a home, cutting tall weeds and removing pine needles from the roof are other things a homeowner can do to mitigate risk, she added. And it’s important to point out the exact proximity of fire protection – including personnel and hydrants – and where roads are located as well as that baby aspens are not “brush.”

“I’m not going to mislead insurance companies, but I’ll try to work with them to say, hey, you really need to be looking at the home,” she said.

In the Breckenridge cases, the dialogue was successful. Coverage was reinstated, though she said she’s unsure if the rates increased at all.

Scott said Allstate has determined that 80424 (Breckenridge area) and 80443 (Frisco area) are high-risk wildfire zip codes and as such, homeowners there should be particularly aware of changing guidelines.

“Talk to your agent,” she said. “Help them know you’re doing what you can to prevent a fire in your home.”

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