Fire departments could charge for fire mitigation
SUMMIT COUNTY – Local fire departments might have to start charging homeowners for fire mitigation if demands for the service get to be burdensome for the county’s only wildfire mitigation officer.
The issue came up earlier this week when State Farm officials announced they will begin sending inspectors to the homes of people the company insures to make sure the homes are protected against wildfire. Inspectors will outline violations and give the homeowner 18 to 24 months to rectify them.
State Farm will drop homeowner policies for those who fail to comply.
Lake Dillon assistant fire chief Jeff Berino said fire officials saw it coming.
According to Steve Niccolai, commercial underwriting supervisor for State Farm, a lot of insurance companies are reexamining their policy criteria for homes in the Rocky Mountains. Among the reasons are a statewide increase in population, the drought, low snowpack and the lessons learned from last summer’s conflagrations.
Officials worked with state Forest Service rangers to develop a map outlining areas most prone to wildfire. They looked at Forest Service “red zone,” road and trail maps, population density and the likelihood of lightning strikes in determining the danger throughout the state. They issued zeros to areas of barren rock and 14s to areas with the highest hazards.
Most areas in Summit County fall into the 10 and 11 rating, Niccolai said. He said he doesn’t know how many homes are in those areas but expects to inspect 12 to 50 Summit County homes each year for the next three years. Statewide, State Farm will inspect about 4,000 homes.
Inspections will begin in June, and inspectors will probably make their way to the Western Slope in the late summer or early fall. Berino said there is “a very strong possibility” fire departments will have to implement fees to recoup their costs for mitigating homes. Agencies and municipalities in other areas typically charge $25 to $50 for the service.
“This is to increase the safety of our customer’s home,” Niccolai said. “We can pay for a home, we can pay for its contents, but people have things that are irreplaceable. That’s important to us. Our goal is not to lose one State Farm customer from this program.”
Wildfires last year destroyed 384 homes and 624 other buildings in Colorado last year. That resulted in $24.5 million in payments to policy holders, Niccolai said.
Nevertheless, he said policy holders should not expect to see higher premiums.
“Hail, wind and water are still the main claim dollar in any one year,” he said. “It’s based on the historic trend of all our losses. Fire was higher last year, but if you mix it in with other losses, fire doesn’t drive rates.”
People who have built a house in the past eight years have already had their homes inspected, Berino said.
“It’s the existing structures where the problems arise,” he said. “But most people know if their house is in a wildfire-prone area. I think people should be proactive and take care of the issues before the insurance company comes in and says, “Do it our way.’ They might not be as flexible.”
Insurance companies have already denied coverage to some homes north of Silverthorne because of fire danger.
“Some people have really had to shop around just due to the nature of their home,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to go away. I think this will happen more and more as insurance companies have to write big checks to replace homes.”
Berino said other insurance companies, including Chubb, which writes policies for high-end luxury homes, have already started implementing similar rules.
The intent of fire mitigation is to reduce potential fire danger around homes and other structures. It usually involves mowing tall grasses and thinning trees so the branches of nearby trees aren’t touching. Fire will travel through the branches of trees, and if trees have enough separation between them, the fire will fall to the ground, where it is easier to fight.
“The intent of this is not a clear cut,” Berino said. “It’s just selective thinning – something to break up the continuity of the crowns.”
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