California homeowners and regulators have a new fear about wildfires ravaging the state: that insurers will drop coverage.
Massive, out-of-season fires in northern and southern California are causing billions of dollars in claims and challenging expectations of when and where to expect blazes. State law gives insurers more leeway to drop coverage than to raise rates, and some are taking the opportunity, concerning California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.
Homes in the Sierra Nevada foothills were dropped after wildfires swept through the region in recent years, and some other Northern California homes also have been cut from rosters, Jones said.
“We may see more of it,” he added in an interview. Insurers must renew fire victims’ policies once, but after that homeowners could be driven to unusual, expensive policies.
Retired firefighter Dan Nichols of Oroville, California was surprised when Liberty Mutual dropped his coverage this year, following a wildfire in the region.
“I was shocked and angry,” said Nichols, 70, by email.
Liberty Mutual must “responsibly manage” its overall exposure to California’s wildfires as part of a strategy to safeguard its ability to pay homeowners’ claims, a spokesman said. The insurer still issues policies in California and its strategy is not in response to recent fires, he said.
Nichols found a better deal through AAA, but others are not as lucky. In San Andreas, a community northeast of San Francisco, homeowners typically use specialty insurers, known as “surplus lines carriers,” for policies that cost about 20 to 40 percent more than a mainstream insurer, said Fred Gerard, who owns an insurance agency in the area.
Insurers must be cautious by not covering too many homes in one area, said Janet Ruiz, a spokeswoman for the industry’s Insurance Information Institute. “They tend to spread their risk so they can pay claims,” Ruiz said.
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