An airplane drops fire retardant on flames in the hills above La Cañada… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
More homes face high risk of being destroyed in a wildfire in densely populated Los Angeles County than in any other county in the state, according to new insurance industry research that underscores that fire danger is not confined to rural areas.
The analysis, released Wednesday by the Insurance Information Network of California, places more than 2 million homes in the high-risk category statewide. Slightly more than half of them are in Southern California, where huge, wind-driven fires have charred thousands of houses in the last decade.
"Wildfires have been the most expensive singular events that have occurred in California" since the 1994 Northridge earthquake, said Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute. "It does seem the losses are in an inexorable climb upward" across the country, he added, citing the effects of drought and more people moving into fire-prone areas.
The network, a nonprofit trade association and affiliate of the institute, used the data to create an online map that gives a county-by-county breakdown of the number of homes in each of three fire risk categories: low, moderate and high.
With 417,543 homes in the high-risk column, Los Angeles County leads the state, followed by San Diego and San Bernardino counties.
Counties in the central Sierra Nevada, including Alpine, Mariposa and Tuolumne, have the greatest proportion of residences at high risk. But because those regions are sparsely populated, the number of homes is relatively small.
The analysis was conducted by a division of Verisk Insurance Solutions, a company that provides information to the insurance industry. Using satellite data, the firm examined fuels on wild land, slope — which contributes to fire spread — and road access for firefighters.
The results, which count apartments and condos as well as single-family homes, differ from other assessments by the state and another company that recently issued a report on wildfire hazard in the West.
Employing a different methodology that looked at parcels, rather than individual residences, a report by CoreLogic estimated that more than 740,000 residences throughout the West were in the highest risk categories. About 282,000 of those properties were in California.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which looks at fuels and an area's fire history, estimated in 2007 that more than 3 million homes in the state were at the greatest risk from wildfire. Most of them were in urban subdivisions not far from wild lands that can be the source of wind-driven embers that ignite houses ahead of the flame front.
California insurers paid more than $5 billion in wildfire claims in the disastrous fire seasons of 2003, 2007 and 2008. Of the 10 costliest wildfires in the United States since 1990, seven have been in California.
That has helped drive up average annual homeowner premiums in the state, which have risen nearly 50% since 2001. Insurance companies are also paying closer attention to brush clearance and other preventive measures when they issue new policies, Hartwig said.
Last month, the state began collecting an annual fire prevention fee from homeowners in the 31 million acres protected by state firefighters. The fee, authorized by legislation, is expected to raise $84 million to $88 million a year to pay for such activities as brush clearance inspections, arson investigations and public education.