California is notorious for its expansive beaches, Hollywood celebrities and carefree culture, but it is not all sunshine and rainbows in the Golden State: Wildfires destroyed more than 4.2 million acres in 2020 alone. In fact, according to annual statistics collected from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, 2020 more than doubled the state’s previous record for number and severity of wildfires in a single year. These wildfires cause billions of dollars worth of damage every year, with damages exceeding $10 billion in estimated costs as of October 2020.
With such a high prevalence of wildfires occurring in California, it is important for residents to understand how their homeowners insurance policies can help when the unthinkable happens. By taking the time to understand your policy, you can ensure you have the wildfire insurance in place to overcome the costs associated with a California wildfire.
What causes California wildfires?
According to the National Park Service, roughly 85% of wildfires in the U.S. are caused by humans. The most common causes for wildfires include the following:
- Burning debris
- Carelessly discarded cigarettes
- Equipment malfunctions
- Intentional arson
- Unattended campfires
In addition to human causes, lightning bolts have the potential to ignite wildfires if they last for an unusual period of time. Especially during the 2020 California wildfires, dry lightning strikes were a leading cause for the record-breaking burns. The state’s hot, dry climate only added fuel to the 14,000 dry lightning strikes that sparked flame after flame in 2020.
Living in an area like California with such a high risk for wildfires can make finding affordable homeowners insurance difficult. Insurers charge for coverage according to the level of risk they assume by taking you on as a policyholder. Because of this, some insurance carriers will charge higher premiums, increase deductibles, cap payouts, or deny coverage altogether for homes in high-risk regions.
Does home insurance cover wildfires?
Most standard homeowners insurance policies will cover fire damage, including from wildfires. There are many different coverage types that can help policyholders afford the cost of repairing or replacing their homes, or replacing personal property.
This coverage pays for the cost of rebuilding or replacing the physical structure of your home and any other structures attached to it after a wildfire event, including decking or attached garages. Coverage amounts vary, but most policy limits are based on the amount it would cost to rebuild the entire home according to local materials and labor costs. These costs change over time with the rate of inflation and other economic changes. If you are unsure about your policy limit, refer to your documents and consult with your insurance agent to find out how you can get more coverage if necessary.
Other structures coverage
Just like dwelling coverage, “other structures” coverage provides financial support for the cost to rebuild or replace unattached structures on your property affected by wildfires, including sheds, detached garages, fencing and pool houses.
Other structures coverage is usually based on a percentage of your dwelling coverage. If, for example, your dwelling coverage is set at $300,000 and your other structures coverage is 15% of that policy limit, your limit for other structures on your property would be $45,000. Any time you add structures to your home, it is wise to review your homeowners insurance policy and make sure you have the necessary coverage.
Personal property coverage
While your dwelling and other structures coverage does not address items like furniture, kitchen appliances or electronics, your personal property coverage does. Policy limits on personal property coverage typically range from 50 – 70% of the limit specified in your dwelling coverage. If you have a $300,000 limit from before and your personal property policy limit is 60% of your dwelling coverage, you would have $180,000 worth of coverage for your belongings.
The best way to determine if you have the right amount of coverage is often to take a home inventory of all your belongings and what it would cost to replace each item if it were destroyed in a California wildfire.
This coverage is also referred to as “additional living expenses” and covers the cost of hotel stays, meals and other expenses related to being unable to live in your home due to a wildfire. California residents with loss-of-use coverage can make claims with their providers if authorities require them to evacuate, even if the fire never reaches their home. Loss-of-use policy limits vary depending on the set percentage of dwelling coverage your insurer uses to determine coverage amounts. These limits can be increased as needed by the policyholder.
Does Condo Insurance Cover Wildfires?
In most cases, condo insurance policies will cover wildfire damage caused to the interior walls of your living space. The exterior of the condo should be covered by your homeowners association’s master policy. Each condo insurance policy has different coverage options available that can help policyholders afford the cost to replace, repair, or rebuild personal property damaged in a wildfire event.
Interior walls coverage
Depending on the type of master policy your HOA has in place, coverage may be provided for specific items inside your condo. An “all-in” master policy provides coverage for things like appliances, carpets, electrica, and plumbing while a “bare walls” policy, nothing inside the unit’s walls will be covered.
With interior walls coverage, you will likely be able to use your policy to pay for the cost to repair or replace damaged items within the walls of your condo that would not be covered through the HOA master policy. For example, if your HOA has a bare walls policy, it would not cover the cost to replace kitchen countertops damaged in a wildfire. With interior walls coverage, you would be able to recoup the cost to replace these items.
Personal property coverage
Just like with a homeowners insurance policy, personal property coverage allows condo owners to recover the cost for replacing personal items like electronics, furniture, appliances and jewelry. Coverage limits are set by the policyholder at a set dollar amount.
Your HOA master policy will not cover your personal property, even if it is an all-in policy. Review your current coverage with your condo insurance provider to ensure you have enough coverage for your belongings.
Additional living expenses coverage
As with homeowners insurance, this option covers any expenses incurred as a result of being displaced from your condo due to a wildfire event. Expenses like hotel stays, restaurant bills, pet boarding and laundry services can all be covered by your insurance provider if you have elected additional living expenses coverage. Californians who have been asked to evacuate can submit a claim, even if the fire never reaches their condo.
How do you get insurance in common wildfire areas?
As mentioned, some insurers may deny coverage or discontinue coverage for homeowners living in high-risk areas for wildfires. This is especially common in certain areas of California, such as Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento. If this happens, there are a few routes that homeowners can take to obtain coverage.
The FAIR Plan
The Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan is a state-mandated program that offers access to insurance products for individuals living in wildfire-prone areas of California. State residents can apply for the plan if they own property in California and meet certain building requirements.
While the FAIR Plan provides coverage solutions for high-risk homes, residents may want to thoroughly exhaust the options available through the voluntary market. Not only are FAIR Plans more expensive, but they offer fewer coverage options and lower policy limits. For instance, the California FAIR Plan does not currently offer personal property or replacement cost dwelling coverages. Additionally, the plan will not cover:
- Houses with existing damage that have no repair plans
- Long-term vacant or unoccupied homes
- Properties used for federally illicit means, such as growing marijuana
Surplus or excess line carrier
In addition to the California FAIR Plan, residents may be able to obtain homeowners insurance through a surplus or excess line carrier. These insurers provide coverage for homes that carriers through the standard marketplace won’t take on as clients. Surplus lines do not abide by the same state regulations that standard carriers do, making them more expensive than the average homeowners insurance policy.
If your home is situated in a high-risk wildfire area in California and you’ve been dropped by your standard provider, you might be able to find coverage through a more expensive premier carrier. The following outlines some of the more popular premier carriers and their premium cost, benefits and eligibility requirements for California residents:
|Insurance company||Average annual premium cost||Coverages||Eligibility requirements|
|AIG Private Client Group||$1,130||Loss prevention
Personal property coverage
Additional living expenses
|Home value must be more than $1M
Must be a California state resident
|Chubb||$1,630||Additional living expenses
Personal property replacement cost coverage
Extended replacement cost coverage
|Home value must be more than $250k
Must be a California resident
Personal property coverage
Medical Payments coverage
Replace, rebuild, or cash settlement
Guaranteed replacement cost coverage
Loss prevention benefit
|Only for high-net-worth individuals
Must be a California resident
How to Help Prevent Wildfire Damage
California homeowners can take some steps to prevent wildfire damage in their homes. The following homeowners checklist illustrates the points of top concern that residents should address during the wildfire season:
- Know your risk: Be aware of droughts affecting your area, consider having a professional inspect your property and understand your community’s wildfire response strategy.
- Remove excess vegetation: Leafy greens are fuel for wildfires in California. FEMA recommends that homeowners create a 30-foot safety zone around their residence to keep the volume of vegetation to a minimum. Remove any vines from walls, move shrubs away from the structure, prune branches/shrubs within 15 feet of chimneys and stove pipes, remove tree limbs within 15 feet of the ground and replace highly flammable plants with lower growing, less fire-prone species.
- Keep combustibles away: Keep all firewood stacked at least 100 feet and uphill from your home. Additionally, ensure your grill gas and propane tank are at least 15 feet from the home. Be sure a 15-foot clearing exists around your grilling equipment as well. Be sure all gutters are clear of leaves and other flammable debris.
- Do not leave exposed space: Decks, porches and balconies with exposed space beneath are fuel for California wildfires. Keep combustibles cleared from underneath decks and porches, and extend a ½-inch mesh screen from all overhangs to the ground. Use fire-retardant patio furniture and materials when building any new structures to your home.
- Cover openings to the home: Attic vents, soffit vents and louvers are prime areas of the home where floating embers and burning debris can easily enter and ignite. Be sure all openings are covered with ¼-inch mesh wire to keep burning materials outside the home.
- Have fire-resistant roofing and siding: Replace any wood, shake, or shingle roofing materials with fire-resistant alternatives such as single-ply membranes, fiberglass shingles, slate, metal, clay, or concrete tile. Ensure your home’s siding is created from non-flammable materials such as stucco, metal, brick, cement shingles, concrete, or rock. Wood siding may be treated with UL-approved fire retardant chemicals; however, this is not a permanent solution.
- Treat your windows: If your home has particularly large windows, this can increase your risk of igniting combustible materials within your home. Dual- and triple-pane thermal glass and fire-resistant shutters may help reduce the risk of a wildfire event affecting your home or personal property.
By taking the time to prepare your home’s interior and exterior features before the wildfire season, you can reduce your risk for incurring damage and submitting a claim to your insurance provider.
Frequently asked questions
What is the best homeowners insurance company?
The best homeowners insurance company for California residents largely depends on your geography, coverage options, available discounts and claims history. Especially if you live in a high-risk area, consider shopping around to receive the best rates for your policy.
Can I get dropped from my homeowners insurance policy if my home is in a wildfire-prone area?
Insurers must assess the risk they assume by taking on each client carefully. For this reason, if your home is in a particularly high-risk region where wildfires regularly occur, your insurance provider may drop you from your policy or reject your renewal. Speak with your provider to determine whether or not your home is in a high-risk area that may be dropped.
Can I get homeowners insurance discounts if I use fire safety equipment?
Some insurance providers offer incentives to policyholders for having specific fire safety equipment installed in their homes. Ask your insurance agent if your smoke detectors, fire alarms and fire extinguishers qualify you for special savings on your policy premium.