Home insurers take notice of fire risk, start to push mitigation

A fire mitigation demonstration lot has been created at the entrance of the Tween Lakes subdivision on County Road 240. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

A fire mitigation demonstration lot has been created at the entrance of the Tween Lakes subdivision on County Road 240.

The majority of La Plata County residents live in rural communities surrounded by forests. While being surrounded by trees and wildlife can be appealing, home location is posing a problem for some homeowners trying to obtain or renew insurance policies, insurance experts say.

The insurance industry started establishing new regulations for homeowners after the nationwide 2000 and 2002 fire seasons because of huge losses insurance companies experienced.

Companies are taking a closer look at homes in high wildfire-risk areas and requiring homeowners to limit the fire hazards around their homes and meet certain safety requirements before the home will be insured, according to local brokers.

Mitigating a property can include cutting down trees that a fire could quickly travel up and use to spread; thinning out the shrubs; and disposing of pine needles and other highly flammable vegetation near the home.

“The standards are tougher than they were 10 years ago. A person would be well advised to address fire-mitigation issues around their residence no matter where they live,” said Jim Duresky, an insurance agent for Farmers Insurance Group. “Overall, 10 years from now, if you have not done fire mitigation you may not be able to buy homeowners insurance.”

Homeowners already are seeing higher deductibles and rate increases, and insurance companies are beginning to inspect properties before they will issue insurance, said Terri Will, a senior broker at the Associate’s Group of Cos., an insurance and financial services firm.

Standards are likely to become more stringent, and soon, 60 to 75 percent of homeowners in the county will have to meet fire mitigation standards in order to buy insurance, Duresky said.

There are 12,924 addresses in high fire-risk zones in La Plata County with 16,909 structures – homes, barns, etc. – at those addresses, according to Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management.

Homes in high-risk zones are the first that insurance companies will look at for possible insurance cancellation, Duresky said.

Several groups have come together to try to address insurance concerns, but the lack of consistent standards across all insurance companies is a big hurdle, said Pam Wilson, program director for Firewise Southwest Colorado.

“Every company has different standards, which makes it really difficult for groups like mine to educate homeowners,” she said.

Another challenge is that a decade has passed since the Missionary Ridge fire when local homeowners felt the true impact of a wildfire. Mitigating a home has slipped down the priority list when it should be considered essential basic maintenance, said Rich Graeber, the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District chief.

Many people who owned homes during the Missionary Ridge fire have left the area and new homeowners don’t understand what it’s like to go through a catastrophic wildfire, said Craig Goodell, a fire mitigation and education specialist at the San Juan Public Lands Office.

“It’s good on the 10th anniversary to sit down and talk about what everyone went through and remember those days because it was a pretty strong, emotional time for the community,” he said.

While some homeowners may have become complacent, developers recognize the need for mitigated homes and have started mitigating subdivisions before putting them on the market because those homes sell quicker.

Those homes also are more likely to be insured. Some homeowners will buy a house and then discover no company will insure it until the property is mitigated, Wilson said.

“The beauty of doing (mitigation) ahead of time is people don’t go in thinking, ‘Oh, the vegetation is natural’ because in most cases it’s not,” she said.

jdahl@durangoherald.com

Densely clustered Ponderosa pine trees at the Forest Lakes subdivision are in need of fire mitigation. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Densely clustered Ponderosa pine trees at the Forest Lakes subdivision are in need of fire mitigation.

A lot in the Forest Lakes subdivision represents property that is a serious fire threat. Enlarge photo

Durango Herald file photo

A lot in the Forest Lakes subdivision represents property that is a serious fire threat.

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