Once again, orders to clear brush or suffer the consequences are causing a stir in the Santa Monica Mountains.
This time, though, it's not the county Fire Department that is aggressively pushing new brush-inspection regulations--and a 57.2% hike in penalties for homeowners who fail to comply.
It's the California Fair Plan, a state-regulated insurance pool that provides fire insurance in fire-prone areas. Every company that sells property insurance in California is required to join the Fair Plan and share in its liabilities or profits.
This month, inspectors began examining 31,000 parcels it insures in high-risk fire zones throughout Southern California. The vast majority of the properties are in Los Angeles County, said Robert Reinertson, the Fair Plan's vice president of underwriting, and most of them are in the Santa Monica Mountains.
"Who's going to pay for those catastrophic losses that we expect to get two or three times a century, perhaps?" Reinertson said. "It seemed appropriate to make the charges based on the brush exposure in those areas, because the people most exposed to the brush are the most likely to have a total loss."
The Fair Plan is also implementing a rate increase for policyholders--an average of 6.3% on residential properties. But residents are voicing concern mainly about the tough new brush-clearance penalties, based on standards that are much stricter than the county Fire Department's.
The homeowners facing the stiffest penalties represent only a small fraction of Fair Plan policyholders, but their potential brush surcharges--some as much as $6,000 or more--are high enough to arouse anxiety.
The Fair Plan previously inspected brush only when a new property joined the plan. There was no program for follow-up inspections, Reinertson said.
Then in 1993, a series of firestorms tore through Southern California, including one in Topanga and Malibu that killed three people and destroyed 323 homes. The Fair Plan paid $143.5 million to cover the losses, Reinertson said, prompting renewed scrutiny by the insurance industry and state lawmakers.
The state Legislature later required that rates be recalculated to account for such catastrophes. In early 1998, the brush-clearance surcharges jumped 57.2%--the first increase in the plan's 30-year history.
Most Fair Plan customers have yet to encounter the new brush charges because the first round of 1,800 inspections has just begun. It's expected to take three to five years to inspect all 31,000 parcels.
Representatives of county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and state Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) met recently with Fair Plan and county fire officials to discuss the effects of the changes. One of the main issues they discussed, according to participants, is a provision that applies stiff brush-clearance rules and potential fines to people who do not live within five miles of a responding fire department and within 1,000 feet of a hydrant.
The Fair Plan now requires these policyholders to clear a 400-foot perimeter around their homes--twice the distance mandated by the county Fire Department. For a home insured for $300,000, surcharges for noncompliance range from $2,250 to $6,036, depending upon the amount of brush cleared.
"We would argue for relief in the rates or a relaxation of the surcharge," said Joel Bellman, a spokesman for Yaroslavsky. Bellman said his office is trying "to establish eligibility for residents for the Fair Plan . . . under the most favorable circumstances."
The county Fire Department mapped the area it patrols in the Santa Monica Mountains and estimated that 850 parcels there fall into the Fair Plan's highest-risk category, said Assistant Fire Chief Stephen Alexander. Some are in the Viewridge neighborhood north of Topanga, the Schueren Road area east of Monte Nido, and the Malibu Bowl and Malibu Vista areas.
Fire officials may be able to hammer out a deal for the owners of about 500 such properties--parcels that lie within the county but are closer to a city fire station than a county station. In an effort to lower the surcharges these owners face, Alexander is working with city fire officials to possibly arrange a joint response to fires in these regions.
For some canyon dwellers, the Fair Plan changes bring up unpleasant memories of clashes with county firefighters over brush clearance. Although removing trees and bushes may increase fire safety, residents said, it can also undermine slope stability and endanger hillsides during floods.
Some Topanga residents say the county Fire Department has been more sensitive to their aesthetic and environmental concerns during the past year.
"We would hope the Fair Plan would recognize that our existing standards for brush control and other precautions have been developed by county fire officials with public safety and the protection of property uppermost in their minds," Bellman said. "Who better than our Fire Department to make the determination about what's safe?"