Monday, December 1, 2008

Defensible space v. insurance companies

unedited Nov. 08 Tahoe Mt. News story

By Kathryn Reed

South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Lorenzo Gigliotti isn’t leaving defensible space issues up to his staff. When calls started rolling in from residents who had their home owners’ insurance dropped, he took a look at some of the properties.
“Allstate says defensible space is 300 feet. In most cases that is well out of the control of the owner and beyond the state requirements,” Gigliotti said.
Lisa and Paul Huard had Allstate for 25 years, never filed a claim and were issued a non-renewal notice this summer. They met with Allstate agent Bob Harder after the Angora Fire of summer 2007 to assess their coverage. They increased it, paid more and now feel like their money was merely used to pay off claims elsewhere in the state.
They’ve filed a complaint with the state Department of Insurance. While the wheels of bureaucracy turn at a glacial pace, they opted to switch to Ameriprise.
State law requires companies to let a policyholder know at least 45 days in advance of a non-renewal. And they must provide specific reasons.
Allstate told the Huards that trees, the house next door and their then shake roof were issues even though when they spoke to Harder a year ago he said it was OK to wait a year to replace the roof.
The Huards put on a new roof this summer. They have removed trees. The California Tahoe Conservancy has treated the lot next to them. On the other side is a house. Behind them is Barton Meadow.
“It kills me to see those commercials that say you are in good hands with Allstate,” Lisa Huard said. “Corporate said I was denied by the underwriters.”
Harder referred calls from the Tahoe Mountain News to corporate.
“Allstate is inspecting properties in high-risk wildfire areas throughout California to help identify potential issues well in advance of our customers’ policy renewal date. If any issues are identified, and those issues are corrected or resolved prior to the renewal date, Allstate will renew its current customers’ homeowner policies, subject to applicable Allstate underwriting guidelines,” said Pete DeMarco, Allstate spokesman. “Allstate is taking responsible steps to manage our risk so that the company is in a financially strong position. Every property is unique, and greater clearance requirements may be warranted in particular situations.”
He would not speak to specific cases.
Allstate is the third largest insurance company in the state, with approximately 850,000 homeowners’ polices. It will not say how many of those are in Lake Tahoe or the vicinity. DeMarco said the company has no intention of pulling out of the area. However, it is not issuing new policies to Lake Tahoe home owners.

What others say

According to Jason Kimbrough with the state Department of Insurance, the agency will only track complaints about non-renewal notices from the burn area. It hasn’t received any. Nor does the state keep track of companies leaving Lake Tahoe, nor does it have a record of the number of companies operating here.
The Insurance Information Network of California, a trade organization for the insurance industry, says non-renewals are declining in the state. Tully Lehman, spokesman for the group, said companies are always assessing how much risk they have in certain areas.
Jesse and Sondra Garner are two other locals who received a non-renewal notice. The Montgomery Estate residents got a letter in March from United Services Automobile Association, a company that predominately insures military personnel. USSA had insured the house for more than decade.
The company sent an inspector to evaluate the property.
“We are very active about defensible space,” Jesse Garner said. “We initially said goody, bring it on because we are the best in the neighborhood.”
He is even a member of his neighborhood’s fire safe chapter.
He said the inspector was complimentary of the work they were doing. On June 4 an underwriter called to say their policy wouldn’t be renewed as of Aug. 11. The 11-page report was faxed to the Garners.
“It was so full of bogus bull. It is just laughable,” Garner said.
Someone on the phone old him the issue was that he lives in a wooded area.
The Garners are now with AAA – at lower rates.
AAA is obviously writing new policies in South Lake. They were one of the companies with good reviews from victims of Angora.
However, company spokesman Matt Skryja said, “Things are status quo, but currently we are reviewing our guidelines and practices.” He would not elaborate.
State Farm is another agency that is continuing to write policies.
“We have no concerted effort to not renew policies because of wildfire exposure,” said Vince Wetzel, State Farm spokesman. “We constantly look at the homes we insure on a case by case basis. We look at defensible space and we look at the risk they have like outdated roofs and the overall condition of the home to make sure it is in the best state possible to withstand wildfire.”

Defensible space

When it comes to assessing the threat of fire, DeMarco said, “Allstate’s brush requirements are based on many safety factors that may impact firefighters’ ability to access and defend the property. We look at factors such as the width of streets, distance to a water source, the amount of combustible vegetation, the degree of the slope, and the readability of road signs or difficulty in finding the property.”
The state requires a non-combustible area from zero to 5 feet from the property. From 5 to 30 feet the area should have limited flammable vegetation, with no ladder fuels and be well irrigated. Out to 100 feet the fuel zone should be reduced by paying attention to the horizontal and vertical space between trees and shrubs.
A guide to defensible space is “Living With Fire: A guide for the homeowner” which was put out by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. For more information, go to
Even though this is supposed to be the bible Lake Tahoe homeowners are to live by, fire officials say it is a “guide” and not something written in stone. This leaves some residents a bit perplexed.
Leona Allen with Lake Valley Fire does defensible space inspections for that department. She can mark trees to be cut based on defensible space, while TRPA assesses forest health.
She likes to ask residents how comfortable they would be to have a softball size ember land on their property or dwelling. That’s the size that were flying around Angora and catching houses on fire. An ember caught her deck on fire, which caught the house on fire and made it a total loss in June ’07.
At the home of Jacke Crump and Cheryl Murakami, Allen talked about the direction of prevailing winds being factor, praised them for having firewood stored inside as opposed to outside where it would be considered an accelerant,
Crump found some of the decisions arbitrary, and questioned leaving some of the clumps of trees and wondered about the canopy of some trees being so close.
“Big trees are more resistant to fire,” Allen said. “It’s not arbitrary. It’s more individual to each property.”
The key is when flames next erupt, that it stays a ground fire and doesn’t become a crown fire.
The basin-wide policy set by TRPA says homeowners must have a permit to cut a tree that is more than 14 inches in diameter. Some homeowners want more control of protecting their property from fire.
In the Cold Creek area, Allen looks over the work that has been done since she issued a defensible space inspection checklist to the owners. It’s remarkable how few pine needles are scattered – a TRPA no-no pre-Angora. It’s not that erosion measures have been voided, it’s just that basin fire chiefs were able to rewrite some of the rules.
The owners, who chose not to use their names, have joined the local fire safe council.
The back has been thinned of threatening brush. White thorn, bitter brush and manzanita are still there – just not in a growth pattern this is combustible or that could be consider ladder fuels. The Squaw carpet is good for erosion and defensible space.
Allen said willows, aspens, birch and all deciduous trees are good.
Lake Valley may be reached at (530) 577-2447 and South Lake Tahoe at (530) 542-6180. Fallen Leaf and Tahoe-Douglas fire departments also want to help homeowners with defensible space.

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