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California bill seeks to push insurers to consider prescribed fire, fuels reduction efforts in underwriting models

Two people use drip torches to light a prescribed burn and watch a snowy hillside on fire.
U.S. Forest Service
Firefighters from Larimer County Emergency Services joined U.S. Forest Service firefighters on the Bighorn Sheep Prescribed Burn.

Wildfires and other climate-fueled disasters are straining insurance markets across the West, but nowhere as intensely as California. There, state legislators are considering a measure to address the rising difficulty of getting insured, which one advocate said could be a model for other states in the region.

Prescribed burns and fuels reduction projects can reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires on a large, landscape scale.

Former California insurance commissioner Dave Jones has published research showing it is possible for insurers to incorporate those impacts into the underwriting models used to decide whether to issue policies.

A late April summary of the bill reads that, “If a property insurer uses risk models for underwriting purposes, this bill would require the models to account for wildfire risk reduction associated with hazardous fuel reduction, home hardening, defensible space, and fire prevention activities.” After a May 16 committee hearing, the word “require” was swapped out with “authorize.”

“It's very frustrating because here in California, the state has appropriated $3.7 billion towards forest treatment, and local governments and homeowners associations and individual homeowners are all in various ways undertaking mitigation, home hardening, defensible space, community mitigation, forest treatment,” Jones said. “And yet they're seeing no benefit in terms of the insurer's decisions to write or renew insurance.”

Insurance groups have criticized the measure, calling it “shortsighted and problematic” in a letter, according to an April 11 Yahoo! News report. They added that the bill seeks to “force insurers to take on risks that are not supported by adequate rate levels and jeopardize their financial solvency.”

Oregon already has a measure that requires consideration for home-hardening efforts, but Jones says to the best of his knowledge California is the first to also try incorporating prescribed fire and other large-scale projects. He hopes other states take note.

“Don't be fooled into thinking that what's happening in California and Florida and Louisiana is just going to remain there because climate change doesn't respect state boundaries and the weather-driven events don't respect state boundaries either,” he said. “And they're growing in severity and frequency, and they're going to keep growing based on all the best science and best projections because we're not doing enough to stabilize temperature rise.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.
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