After the wildfires: How Californians are struggling to recover

Bobbi Bentum wasn’t frantic when an officer from the sheriff’s department came to evacuate her rural community near the town of Upperlake, California. Her family has seen dozens of wildfires, and experienced at least three other evacuation orders since moving to Elk Mountain Road more than 20 years ago. So, like many Californians, Bentum left with her daughter and husband assuming they’d return home after the fire was extinguished, just as they had in the past.

“You always know it could happen, but you never expect it,” Bentum told WikiTribune. “Two weeks ago this was the last thing on my mind, that I’d be homeless.”

What started as a small brush fire on the opposite side of Elk Mountain spread to Bentum’s side of the mountain on the afternoon of July 31. Despite efforts to clear every piece of flammable material, her home, her brother’s home and her parents’ home were consumed by what ultimately became the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest wildfire in California history.

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It’s unlikely the Bentum family will return to Elk Mountain anytime soon. Unlike most homeowners, they don’t carry home insurance, meaning they’d need to personally finance rebuilding their home, which would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We looked into (rebuilding) and it wasn’t a feasible option,” said Bentum, who did not have a mortgage, which compels homeowners to carry insurance (United Policy Holders). If you live out in the sticks, its just really hard to qualify.”

Before and after images of Elk Mountain Road, near Upperlake, California, in Lake County. Photos provided by Bobbi Bentum

Prior to this summer’s fires, every major insurer operating in the area had classified the Bentum’s densely wooded valley property as “high-risk.” This narrowed her insurance options to “last-resort” policies that cost close to $10,000 a year, according to Bentum’s brother, Jayd Michaelson. Because they couldn’t afford the cost, neither the Bentums nor Michaelsons carried insurance on their homes.

In lieu of an insurance payout, friends of the family have set up GoFundMe campaigns to help the two families find reprieve.

Less than half may rebuild after a fire

The future of many rural communities in California is beginning to look bleak, as devastating wildfires destroy homes every year. Like the Bentums and Michaelsons, many homeowners in these remote areas have limited access to affordable insurance, leaving them little incentive to rebuild after the destruction of wildfires turns over their lives. 

Mendocino Complex Fire, 2018
Flames spread by jumping roads in this summer’s Mendocino Complex Fire in California. REUTERS/Fred Greaves/File Photo

Even as the Mendocino Complex Fire continues to burn, Lake County, where the Bentum and Michaelson families reside, is still reeling from previous wildfires. Recovery from the Valley Fire, which destroyed 1,281 homes in 2015, has been long, painful and costly.

Of the 1,281 Lake County homeowners directly affected by the fire, only 40 percent rebuilt after the Valley Fire, according to Carol Huchingson, an administrative officer with the county government. Much of the construction effort has come from volunteer organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity (Press Democrat).

‘I’m less concerned about my premiums going up, as much as my insurance being dropped altogether’ – emergency room nurse who lost home in Tubbs Fire

Even though most victims had home insurance, many did not have enough. Industry experts estimate two-thirds of homeowners are underinsured, meaning they don’t have enough coverage to fund a rebuild of their home. That grim statistic gets increased media attention after nearly every wildfire.

Debate around insuring homes in high-risk zones

Policy makers disagree on how to provide insurance in high-risk communities, which report premium increases nearly every year (Press-Telegram). California’s insurance commissioner Dave Jones has advocated for legislation that would help homeowners in high-risk areas get access to more affordable coverage. In a 2017 report, his office found a 250 percent increase in insurance costs between 2015 and 2016 for those in high-risk zip codes. 

The commissioner’s report was criticized by environmentalists and actuaries for encouraging people to live in “wildlife-urban interfaces,” a term that describes property adjacent to forested areas at increased risk of fire due to drought conditions (Bloomberg).

River Fire (Mendocino Complex) near Lakeport, California
Insurance companies may be reluctant to offer coverage in high-risk areas, such as this one near Lakeport, California. REUTERS/Fred Greaves

Alice Hill, a fellow with the Hoover Institute, argues that policy makers need to realize that fires are becoming more costly because more large homes are being built near dry woodlands. In an interview with Bloomberg in January 2018, Hill said insurers don’t pull out of markets without reason.

“If those risks are getting too high, it’s a strong signal that we need to change our ways,” she said.

The debate over how to address insurance needs of the most fire-prone property owners has parallels with a controversy over flood insurance. The National Flood Insurance Program has paid tens of billions to those who live in well-known floodplains (The New York Times). In both cases, lawmakers have been reluctant to allow insurance prices to skyrocket, even for those that will likely need to rebuild after the event of a hurricane or wildfire. 

‘There’s no doubt that climate change is playing a truly significant role in what we’re facing in California’ – Marin County battalion chief

Dramatically higher insurance costs would upset a large number of constituents. Roughly 3.6 million Californians live in fire-prone wildlife-urban interface areas. If they were to lose access to insurance, they’d have only the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan to fall back on. FAIR is a privately managed high-risk pool that refers to itself as “last resort” coverage.

But even the 128,708 homeowners enrolled in FAIR are hardly receiving cheap coverage. Jayd Michaelson, who lost his home in the Mendocino Complex Fire, said FAIR plans cost as much as $10,000 a year. FAIR vice president Tammy Schwartz characterizes the plan as a placeholder while homeowners shop for another insurance provider.

“You can get better and cheaper coverage outside of FAIR,” she said.

Valley Fire line Wardlaw St. in Middletown, California
The Valley Fire of 2015 displaced as many as 60 percent of affected homeowners. Middletown, California, was hit especially hard. REUTERS/Noah Berger/File Photo

Carole Walker, spokesperson for the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, says paying more for risky property is unavoidable, even if the government were to take the ill-advised step of entering the insurance game. But she sympathizes with Californians who are desperate for reprieve. Compared with Colorado, the state she specializes in, California homeowners and insurers are spread dangerously thin.

“California has unfortunately seen the worst-case scenario play out with a wildfire in a high-density population,” said Walker, referring to last year’s fire in the Santa Rosa area.

Climate change a significant concern

Widespread anxiety over fire insurance was largely considered a rural issue until the Tubbs Fire jumped over four lanes of highway into densely populated neighborhoods of Santa Rosa, California, in 2017. That fire burned through over 5,000 properties. As a result, many suburban homeowners are worried they’ll slip into the dreaded FAIR program, previously regarded as the domain of those living in more remote areas.

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Todd Axberg, an emergency room nurse who lost his home in the Tubbs Fire, has no issue with his insurance policy. It helped him receive a payout large enough to fund most of his rebuilding efforts. But considering Santa Rosa has experienced three major wildfires over the past 50 years, he fears a fourth inferno may be inevitable.

Tubbs Fire, California, 2017
Summer wildfires have become commonplace in California. Many residents are still recovering from the 2017 Tubbs Fire around Santa Rosa. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

“I’m less concerned about my premiums going up, as much as my insurance being dropped altogether,” Axberg told WikiTribune.

Bret McTigue, a battalion chief with the Marin County Fire Department just north of San Francisco, says everyone should be anticipating the next big wildfire. Like many fire officials nowadays, McTigue cites climate change as the primary reason fires have gotten worse, a reality that hit home after the 2017 Tubbs Fire.

“Ten years ago, you would spend your career and maybe see one major fire like this,” he said. “Now, we’re getting one or two career fires per year … there’s no doubt that climate change is playing a truly significant role in what we’re facing in California.”

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