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Hot Zone

Thousands of us are living in fire-prone areas, where it's hard to get insurance. Here's how some people have done it.

October 26, 2008|Diane Wedner | Wedner is a Times staff writer.

It's the peak of what is now a year-round fire season. And throughout Southern California, homeowners in blaze-prone regions are having a hard time finding fire insurance.

Tens of thousands of homes are in the region's brushy canyons, with still more under construction. The powerful blazes of the last few years have raised questions about whether people should be encouraged to live in such areas -- and insurance companies have begun to fight back, dropping some customers and raising prices for others.

"The market is frightening, for sure," said Paul Cashman, a State Farm Insurance agent. "Some companies aren't writing any policies, some are not renewing in selected areas, and some will offer policies only on a place-by-place basis."

Still, it is possible to insure most properties -- if you are willing to do a lot of legwork and pay high premiums.

There are 200 companies insuring homes against fire in California, and even owners in high-risk zones can generally find a policy, said California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

Step by step

Here's how to get started.

First, make your property fire-safe. That first step may determine whether you get a policy and how much you'll pay for it.

Clear 300 feet of combustible brush or chaparral surrounding the house (the state requires 100 feet), install roof sprinklers and enclose the eaves. Make sure your landscaping does not include combustible plants like juniper or lavender near the house.

Additional information on fireproofing can be found at Cal Fire's website, www.fire.ca.gov.

Next, search for an appropriate insurance company. Using either a broker or an agent, find out the various firms' underwriting policies and prices. You might have to deal with companies that are unfamiliar to you, as some well-known firms have slowed or stopped their fire insurance business in the region. Allstate Corp., for example, stopped selling new homeowner policies in California last year. State Farm Insurance Cos. has become selective about where it offers insurance, said spokesman Bill Sirola.

Insurers may factor in the age of a home, the construction materials and the home's proximity to a fire hydrant and fire station. Owners who go the extra mile sometimes can get discounts from insurers; those who don't comply with carriers' requirements often pay more.

Homeowners in high-risk zones unable to get policies from large national carriers may qualify for a so-called surplus line from companies that are not overseen by the state. Those policies typically are arranged through insurance brokers, said Shelina Martinez, a vice president at CDS Insurance Services in San Dimas.

Corral Canyon owners Paul and Danielle Morra went that route.

Their home was newly built in a high-risk fire zone, and the couple knew they would have difficulty finding a policy.

To make the property more attractive to insurance companies, the Morras exceeded local, state and insurance company requirements by clearing 350 feet of combustible brush around their Malibu property. They installed an indoor sprinkler system (mandatory in unincorporated Malibu) and $3,000 roof sprinklers (not required). They also coated all of the building materials for the home with a fire retardant.

The couple got a policy from Lexington Insurance Co., a subsidiary of American International Group Inc., through their insurance broker, but at the hefty price of $9,600 a year.

Soon after, the Corral Canyon fire raged through the neighborhood, and the Morras were evacuated.

A company inspector checked out the property before and several times after the blaze, which the house survived unscathed, even though many neighboring homes were burned.

"Firefighters said our brush clearance made the difference," Paul Morra said. Their policy recently was renewed.

Extra cautious

Some companies may require, beyond the usual safety measures, interior sprinklers, including in closets; fire-resistant roofing materials; on-site 30,000-gallon water tanks; and access codes for homes in gated communities.

And if you are in the fire zone, be prepared to pay high premiums.

"Even if you do all of the mitigating in high-risk zones, you still will pay more in many cases," said Josh Stichter, a sales representative in Santa Barbara for Hub International, an insurance brokerage.

Some owners facing nonrenewal notices have used the power of persuasion to keep their policies. Santa Barbara resident Ginger Sledge, a film producer, received a letter from her insurance company after last summer's Gap fire, informing her that an inspector would be arriving to evaluate her Mission Canyon property, which was not affected by the blaze.

A self-described poster child for maintaining a fire-safe property, she was surprised when shortly after the inspection her nonrenewal notice arrived in the mail, after 20 years with her carrier. The letter claimed that her home's proximity to Los Padres National Forest, not issues with the property itself, prompted the rejection.

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