Heat and smoke rises from the rubble of a home that was destroyed by the Thomas fire in Montecito. Marcus Yam Los Angeles Times
Heat and smoke rises from the rubble of a home that was destroyed by the Thomas fire in Montecito. Marcus Yam Los Angeles Times

Soapbox

As California burns in December, this legislation could protect homeowners

By Jennifer Montgomery

Special to The Bee

December 26, 2017 05:01 AM

Wildfires aren’t supposed to happen in December. And yet Southern Californians are only now being able to return to their homes after being evacuated because of the Thomas Fire, almost sure to become the largest wildfire in California history.

 
Opinion

Wildfires aren’t supposed to burn cities, either. But the Thomas Fire consumed neighborhoods in Ventura and Santa Barbara, while in nearby Los Angeles, the Skirball Fire destroyed Bel-Air mansions. All this comes only two months after the wine country fires burned nearly 7,000 homes in Santa Rosa and Napa County.

Catastrophic wildfire is California’s new normal, and it’s not just a rural problem anymore.

Clearly, saving lives is our main concern. But as California wildfires worsen, a crisis of property insurance access further threatens the foundation of our communities at a time when we face an unprecedented housing crisis.

I joined California Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, last week at the Capitol to announce the introduction of the Wildfire Safety and Recovery Act, a bill co-sponsored by Placer County. This act would help protect responsible homeowners from significant insurance rate rises or cancellations due to wildfire risk.

This partnership between a Northern California county in the Sierra foothills and an urban Southern California senate district illustrates a consensus that when it comes to wildfire, we are all in this together.

Placer County residents have taken steps to reduce fire risk by building with non-combustible materials, maintaining defensible space and hardening their homes in other ways against wildfire. And yet, as wildfire risk has increased after the drought and tree death due to bark beetle, insurance carriers have dropped residents and doubled or tripled premiums.

After years of limited success at getting property owners relief administratively, the broader solution must involve legislation.

With this law, California would join Arkansas, South Carolina, Texas, New York, Alabama and Florida as a state that prohibits or limits insurance companies from canceling policies after natural disasters, or requires them to offer discounts to property owners who harden their homes.

We want insurance companies to operate successfully and profitably in California, and we know risk is increasing. But insurance providers must be required to set and adjust premiums based on an understanding of the real risk to the properties they insure. That means balancing the risk equation with the many steps property owners can take to reduce their risk.

The Wildfire Safety and Recovery Act would allow insurers to profitably invest in California and support responsible property owners and communities that strive to be fire-safe. Ensuring a stable insurance market and access to insurance for property owners is in all of our interests as we build community resiliency in this new age of wildfire.

Jennifer Montgomery is chairwoman of the Placer County Board of Supervisors; her email address is jenmonten@placer.ca.gov