In late August, wildfire prevention advocate Dan Grassetti opened a letter from Allstate, his home’s insurer, with alarming (and just a little ironic) news. His policy would not be renewed due to a risk of fire.
The surprising part: the danger was not on his property but in the lot across the street.
Grassetti, the founder of the Hills Conservation Network, a vocal wildfire prevention organization, said he has always managed the vegetation on his Alvarado Road property to meet prevention standards – cutting brush and grass , prune trees. In early summer, he passed the City of Oakland’s annual forest fire inspection.
His home, which is in a state-designated high-risk fire zone perched high above Claremont Canyon, is technically in Oakland but has a mailing address in Berkeley – not unusual for houses that straddle the city lines. He survived the 1991 Oakland Firestorm through a few doors.
Allstate’s non-renewal notice was shocking, Grassetti said, and he was struck by this line in the letter: “A fire hazard exists due to brush growth on or near your property. . ” Phone calls with his agent confirmed the issue was with the vacant lot in front of his house, not his land, he said.
He immediately appealed the decision, saying he was not responsible for his neighbor’s property. And last week, the company turned the tide, Grassetti said. He’s waiting for a renewal letter, but all his broker has told him so far is that a new inspector has been sent to the site.
Rare but legal
This case is unusual but not unheard of in the Bay Area, according to wildfire insurance experts, noting that each season of destructive fires places those who sail on more volatile ground.
Stories of insurance doom in the high risk forest fire areas of East Bay are increasingly common. For homeowners in these neighborhoods, it is increasingly difficult to obtain insurance, which, if available, is expensive and often watered down. For insurance companies, it is increasingly difficult to assume the financial risks of forest fire coverage, as once-rare disasters become routine.
In some areas of the state, entire zip codes are rejected by home insurers for high fire risks. Grassetti’s insurance roller coaster is yet another sign of this turbulence, experts say.
“I’m not sure if Allstate is trying to move away from this market as a whole or has an issue with my particular home, but the photos of the issue they took had nothing to do with my particular home.” Grassetti said. September 2nd. “According to a Farmers agent I spoke with yesterday, all insurers are moving away from insuring homes in ‘high fire risk’ areas.”
Basing a policy on the conditions of a neighboring property is rare but legal, said Joel Laucher, consultant to nonprofit advocacy group United Policy Holders and former deputy chief state insurance commissioner, said
“Of course, you can’t force someone to clear land that doesn’t belong to them,” Laucher said. “[Insurance companies] can’t say [you that] you have to clear the land that belongs to your neighbor, but they can say that there should be no risk of brush within a certain number of feet of your house.
Brush across the street
Peggy Smith, Grassetti’s Berkeley-based Allstate broker, said she couldn’t comment on any individual policies. She confirmed that she was in contact with Grassetti. “This is something that I am working on with the inspectors,” she said in a conversation with Berkeleyside before Grassetti learned the non-renewal was canceled.
When Grassetti received his non-renewal letter, it included a photo of the land across the street which Allstate says led to his initial decision to cut it. The land did not meet the company’s 100-foot defensible space standards for its home, according to the letter. Defensible space generally refers to a property around a house or structure that is cleared to minimize the spread of fire.
The photo shows a shrub slope, upstream from Alvarado Road. According to Alameda County plot maps, three contiguous open space plots are on its hill, including the lot in front of Grassetti’s house. The plots, located in Oakland, are owned by the same San Francisco entity, Y&H Company, according to property tax documents.
“for failure to adequately clear vegetation along the roadside.
The lots were also non-compliant in 2020, Hunt said.
According to Oakland Fire Department requirements:
“The vegetation that grows along the road must be pruned. Ten feet is the recommended distance, although in some cases less may be appropriate. Branches that overhang the roadway and are less than 15 feet above the ground must be cut to the edge of the roadway. Pruning vegetation along the roadway improves vehicle access, increases sightlines, and creates a fuel cut that could help stop the spread of forest fires. “
Since last week, all but one lot “has since eased,” Hunt said. One lot has a pile of vegetation that needs to be removed for final compliance, he said. (Grassetti, however, said he saw no signs of any recent clearing or work on the property.)
Berkeleyside has contacted Y&H for comment. A person reached by phone said he would pass a reporter’s phone number to the person who owned the Oakland lots. No one from the company called.
Different standards create blind spots
Residents of high risk forest fire areas, which include most of the East Bay Hills, are at risk of fines, liens, or non-renewals of insurance if they do not meet regulatory standards. fire prevention in their city (or county, for unincorporated areas) and their home insurance.
While experts tend to agree on the importance of requiring people to mitigate the risk of fire on their property, conflicting or unclear requirements can cause problems.
Fire agencies and insurance companies do not share ratings.
A homeowner can be in compliance with his city, only to learn that the insurance company wants something different, like Grassetti did.
Smith, Grassetti’s insurance broker, said she didn’t know how the requirements of the Oakland Fire Department stacked up against those of Allstate. Hunt, the Oakland Fire spokesperson, said the same thing. “I don’t know the details Allstate uses to approve or deny and it’s not necessarily based on our inspection protocol,” Hunt said.
Even more confused, different insurance companies have different regulations, so a homeowner can agree with their city and insurance provider, but endanger a neighbor’s insurance coverage, without the knowledge.
“I’m sure it creates animosity,” Laucher said. “Ten years ago, we might not like it, but it wouldn’t cause non-renewal. Now that is a much higher concern.
However, he said, “Generally speaking, most insurance companies don’t necessarily get to this point with their policyholders.”
In California, it is not easy for insurance companies to cancel a home insurance policy after it has been in force for at least 60 days, but they are free to decide not to renew a policy with 45 days written notice.
An exception to this rule is the temporary cancellation and non-renewal moratoria promulgated by the state for certain postal codes in or near disaster areas.
Insurance companies give each property in high fire risk areas a score based on a variety of factors, including fuel load (vegetation that could burn) and slope – fires usually burn faster on uphill. High-scoring properties are vulnerable to higher insurance costs, denials of coverage, and non-renewals. Scores, usually calculated by specialized data companies, are private.
“They are allowed to set any standard as long as it is objective, linked to risk and applied consistently,” Laucher said.
His organization, United Policy Holders, advocates for standardized statewide evidence-based fire risk reduction measures.
The organization also encourages neighboring residents to work together on forest fire safety measures, for example by organizing Firewise Communities, a National Fire Protection Association risk reduction program.
The main goal of the program is neighborhood safety, but participation can also help reduce insurance costs.
It’s also the drumbeat of Oakland Firesafe Council, an education and advocacy group serving all of Alameda County, said council chair Sue Piper. Piper is also a member of the board of directors of United Policy Holders.
“You have to organize your neighborhood; you have to start thinking about a defensible space, “said Piper,” you are only as strong as your weakest link. “