Uninsured homes leave New Mexicans vulnerable in areas affected by wildfires

On May 13, Eric Sandoval of Española walks near his great-uncle’s property that was destroyed when the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burned Tierra Monte, north of Las Vegas, NM. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Projector.

Outside the dining hall at Glorieta Adventure Camp, 56-year-old Lisa Blackburde was having a touching conversation with a few other evacuees.

Nearly three weeks ago, as the rapid Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire raced toward his home near Ledoux, Blackburde heeded a mandatory evacuation order that had already been in place for days. Her boyfriend, Michael Pacheco, stayed to salvage what he could.

“He was a seasonal firefighter for the state,” she said, “so he knows what he’s doing.” They have a horse, a dog, 13 cows and three new calves. “And four of the cows are still waiting.”

If Pacheco hadn’t stayed to put out spot fires, she was sure everything would have caught fire. And they don’t have home insurance.

“I don’t know if we really thought about it because we couldn’t afford it anyway,” Blackburde said. “We live on around $1,000 a month. As it is, we can manage. Michael cuts and bales hay, raises cows, and we belong. Choking, she added: “We would have been devastated if we had lost everything.”

Last I heard, their mobile home and pets were still safe.

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire has now been officially declared the largest in New Mexico history. It is estimated that between 260 and 400 homes have been lost so far, and authorities warn that number is likely to rise as the fire continues to rage along the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo.

Additionally, more than 200 homes were gutted in April’s McBride fire around Ruidoso. On May 4, President Biden approved a disaster declaration that frees up federal funds to help homeowners rebuild, including, crucially, “low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.”

With so many homes lost in such a short time, the lack of home insurance in New Mexico has become a persistent and growing problem. According to state regulators, it can be extremely difficult to get coverage in high wildfire risk areas.

William Sandoval and his dogs Copper and Marissa sit in the evacuation center set up at Peñasco High School on May 9. Sandoval and his dogs were forced from their home in Chacon due to the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Factors companies consider include whether an address is on a paved or dirt path (paved is preferred); if it borders national forest lands (usually not good); if there are fire hydrants nearby (a big plus); and whether the local fire department is professional or volunteer (professional is better).

These considerations place many rural New Mexicans at an inherent disadvantage. According to Verisk Analytics Inc., a data analytics and risk assessment company, about 131,600 homes in New Mexico are at “high and extreme risk” from a wildfire.

The situation has become increasingly tense – “especially over the past five years,” said Janet Ruiz, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry association based in New York.

“With climate change, it is hotter, drier and windier. We are seeing more and more wildfires in areas where there are homes… If a company wants to have less risk on the books in a certain state, the policies will not be renewed.

Those who are able to keep their insurance in high-risk areas are now paying more for it.

As a result, some New Mexico homeowners have been shut out of the market altogether, while others are denied coverage after decades of faithfully paying their premiums.

For 44 years, Senaida and Damian Duran, a 70-year-old couple, insured their home in the Mora Valley.

“But in 2016 we received an email saying they wouldn’t renew us,” recalls Senaida Duran, who, along with her husband, is one of more than 700 evacuees at Glorieta camp. “We went to our agent and tried again and again to get it, but he couldn’t find anyone who would give it to us because we live too close to the mountain.”

From left to right, Damian Duran, Senaida Duran, Raul Valdez and Yvonne Duran, evacuees from the Mora Valley. Damian and Senaida lost their home insurance in 2016 and couldn’t find new coverage because they live too close to the mountain, Senaida said. (Michael Benanav/Searchlight New Mexico)

She thinks their house is safe for now. One of her sons-in-law, Leonard Maestas, remained in the evacuation zone to protect her.

“He pulverizes the house, the pile of wood, everything he can,” said Raul Valdez, another son-in-law, who accompanied the Durans to safety, along with his wife, Yvonne.

But insurance problems are no longer confined to remote rural areas. In April 2021, Mark Castelin was notified that the insurance for his home in a subdivision near Santa Fe Community College was going to be revoked.

“They claimed Rancho Viejo South was adjacent to the Santa Fe National Forest,” he said. This is not the case.

Castelin filed a complaint with the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance, the state agency that regulates the industry. He found a friendly agent in Española who was willing to help him sort things out with the company, and after a lot of time and stress, he renewed his policy.

The Office of the Superintendent of Insurance performs a complicated dance, trying to keep insurance available and affordable to as many New Mexicans as possible while giving businesses enough freedom over pricing and policies to make it worthwhile. to continue operating in the state.

As the risk of wildfire increases, so does the challenge of balancing these opposing goals. When Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham declared states of emergency in Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, Sandoval, San Miguel and Valencia counties, the ordinance effectively banned property insurance cancellations for 90 days in those six counties. But there’s nothing stopping companies from rolling back those policies in the future — or, for that matter, rolling back policies in other counties right now.

The state has a little-known option for homeowners who cannot find coverage on the regular market. The New Mexico Property Insurance Program (NMPIP), a nonprofit, sees itself as “a last resort,” said executive director Analisa Sisneros. “We don’t want people to come with us. We do not advertise or try to do business.

Remains of a house and charred trees under Morphy Lake Road near Morphy Lake State Park in northern New Mexico on May 12. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

While they’re better than nothing, the coverage and indemnification they provide provides far less protection than a standard homeowner’s insurance policy. And they still don’t cover everyone.

Twelve years ago Jack Long, a 72-year-old army veteran and retired rancher, sold his 5,000 acres near Wagon Mound following the death of his wife and was reduced to a small lot in Chacon.

His place is not assured. “If you have a woodstove in a mobile home, you can’t get insurance,” he said, then smiled. “I have a wood-burning stove that you would fall in love with.”

Kate Uehlein, whose house in Guadalupita burned down on May 12, is also not insured. “Companies don’t insure yurts,” she explained.

But she is philosophical about it. “Life goes on. Sometimes you just have to trust the universe. It might take a few months, but I’ll rebuild… I heard the sheep are safe.

Bryan Doerner, an agent for State Farm in Santa Fe, said that since the fires started, “so many people who live off the grid have been calling about insurance. In the past two weeks I’ve had two times more calls about yurt insurance than in my 15 years in New Mexico Others are straw bales or made of tires and glass bottles Each must be assessed individually He couldn’t predict how many might actually be able to get policies.

Those left without insurance and losing their homes to a future wildfire will be left with a dire hope: that the fire that destroyed it will grow big enough for the President to declare it a major disaster.

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative journalism in New Mexico.


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