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Fire-hardening proves effective in saving homes; insurance companies not yet on board

By Kenny Choi

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    SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — Wildfires have burned nearly 2.5 million acres in California this year alone. As we have reported, they have ignited an insurance crisis, with hundreds of thousands of homeowners getting dropped because of high fire risk.

But KPIX 5 found one homeowner that managed to save both his insurance and his home.

“When we were evacuated the fire was coming up out of the canyon. We stopped down the road and looked back this way. I wrote it off. I said, there’s no way our house can survive,” said Rodger Wells, a homeowner in Grizzly Flats, a community in El Dorado County that was devastated by the Caldor Fire.

But weeks after evacuation and still displaced, Rodger Wells and his wife Mary turned on the news and miraculously saw their house still standing.

“It was amazing,” said Mary Wells.

“Yeah, I couldn’t believe it, you know, flabbergasted, holy smokes!” said Rodger Wells.

In every direction outside their house, there is nothing but charred remains of what so many families called home. There’s plenty of evidence the inferno made its way to the Wells’ doorstep, too. “The fire was here, but it didn’t light up the house,” said Rodger Wells.

The former logger believes it’s because two years ago when he retired he started hardening his home. He sealed it so embers can’t get in, replaced a wooden deck with synthetic planks, installed a fire-resistant roof and siding, and cut down trees.

“We took down 14 trees that were too close. We opened it up. So if there was a fire, it wouldn’t be on top of us,” said Rodger Wells. “Two years ago, this house would have been gone.”

Rodger Wells also made sure to keep his insurance company, Allstate, updated on each home hardening improvement. So not only is his home safe, his annual premiums have stayed at $1,200 a year.

Steve Moeller bought his house in Auburn, Placer County built “hardened” from the ground up.

“Our house can’t burn,” said Moeller. “It’s got sprinkler systems inside, it’s non-combustible material on the outside, the roof is fire-resistant, it’s got vents that won’t let embers in.”

However, State Farm, his property insurer for decades, didn’t factor that in at renewal time.

“It went from $900 a year to $9,000. and I didn’t want to pay that,” said Moeller.

He was able to find a specialty insurer, Rivington Partners, that inspected his home and offered a $2,300 dollar annual premium that includes a 10% discount for home hardening.

But according to El Dorado County insurance agent Aurora Mullet, very few property owners are getting breaks. In fact quite the opposite – she has clients that do everything to harden their home, only to see their insurance double and triple.

“The system is broken,” Mullett told KPIX 5. “With the lack of progress that we are seeing I believe it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And we are going to have more insurance companies that pull out,” said Mullett.

Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara admits it has been a challenge.

“I’ll tell you in all the counties that I’ve visited and the meetings with consumers, that one of the biggest issues that they bring up to me is the fact that they’ll have an insurance company come in and say, you need to do these hardening things. and then they still get dropped from their policy,” said Lara.

Lara says he is working with the industry to come up with new home hardening standards that, if met, will guarantee a discount for property owners.

“It’s similar to a good driving discount that insurers already do,” said Lara. “We want to encourage people to do the right thing.”

Moeller wants that, too. His Firewise neighborhood group recently met with the commissioner, seeking advice on how to convince insurers to do the right thing.

“We are hoping that as we get more organized as communities and we do more work, reducing fire risks, that the insurance companies will recognize that,” said Moeller.

Back in Grizzly Flats, Rodger Wells hopes his story of survival will inspire both insurers and homeowners.

“Anyone that lives in a forest should take the time and effort because they are vulnerable,” said Rodger Wells.

A spokesperson for the insurance industry told KPIX it is working with the state to come up with the new risk guidelines, using technology-driven models. The insurance commissioner wants to get new rules out before the next fire season.

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