Michael Soller, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Insurance, says Lafayette’s concern is valid. “There’s been a change in the past couple decades from the way that risk is even established. Previously, insurance companies had evaluated a home almost based on its own characteristics. And increasingly, they’re using the satellite imagery,” he says, which bases the risk on many characteristics besides just the home itself.
More and more, insurance companies are using this kind of assessment — available through predictive technologies — to determine their policyholders’ wildfire risks. However, critics say these tools are making it even harder for homeowners to get insurance coverage in an already unstable market.
What insurers are not doing, both Soller and Lafayette say, is giving homeowners credit for the work they’ve done toward keeping their properties safe. Legally, the insurance companies don’t have to take that into account, Soller says. California doesn’t require insurers to reflect mitigation efforts when they decide how much a homeowner’s premium will cost.
Lafayette has also reported the property next door to the fire department and called her district supervisor to express concern. “All they can tell me is they send a letter every month, and every month that [the owners] don’t take action on their property, the fine goes up. But I’m sure it’s still much cheaper to pay the fine than it would be to clear the property,” she says.
Unfortunately for Lafayette, city and county regulations don’t require the property owner next door to address the issue. According to Nevada County emergency services manager Jeff Pettitt, local code only requires 100 feet of cleared defensible space around structures. That means if it’s a vacant property, like this one, and there’s no structure within 100 feet, then there’s no way for the city to force them to clear the property. For Lafayette and her mother, the neighbor’s vegetation would have to creep a lot closer to their property line before the county could intervene.
Yet, meanwhile, they continue to be penalized for fire fuel growth beyond their control.
As satellite and other predictive risk data becomes more sophisticated, homeowners are grappling with this bird’s-eye view approach from their insurers. At the same time, a California-based climate startup is striving to democratize this developing assessment model.
‘A Realistic Animation of Armageddon’
Market projections anticipate this. By 2026, the global climate change consulting market is forecast to be worth $8 billion.