I Received the Letter Every Sierra Homeowner is Trying to Avoid

I received the dreaded letter last month. The one from my insurance company telling me they were not renewing the fire portion of my homeowner’s insurance. This, even after my husband has been a loyal premium-paying customer for 42 years, and we and our neighbors have spent tens of thousands of dollars on tree removal and fuel reduction work to make our homes and neighborhood more fire-safe. We were redlined largely because of where our address falls on a map, with little consideration of site-specific conditions. The fact that we live fewer than 500 feet downhill from an open-water irrigation ditch meant nothing relative to risk reduction, while our urban neighbors who live within 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant get their risk profile reduced.

An image from Kerri's backyard Does this make me mad? Yes. But what makes me even madder is the undercurrent of “rural-shaming” that punctuates this story – the insidious narrative that somehow through our own folly rural residents have created this situation and, as a result, we deserve what we get. For example: 

  • On July 31, 2019, a blogger writing under the pseudonym “On the public record” called insurance companies “heroes” because the companies’ refusal to write fire insurance is pushing current residents out of high-risk areas and preventing new residents from moving in, saving them from a “fiery death trap.”.
  • At a Legislative committee hearing in July 25, 2018, former California Public Utilities Commission president Michael Picker suggested that it’s the people moving “farther out from urban centers” and their demand for electricity – carried by distribution lines running through high fire hazard areas – that is the problem. When asked two months later by the San Diego Union-Tribune about undergrounding those power lines to minimize risk, Commissioner Picker responded: “I don’t think that we can afford to underground the whole thing. It’s easier to buy people out and make them move out of the fire hazard area.”

Such a storyline demonizes innocent people and ignores a number of important factors. First, many of these “farther out areas” in the foothills and forests are actually historic communities that have existed for as long or longer than California has been a state. Take Nevada City, for example, which was inhabited by aboriginal tribes, incorporated by settlers during the Gold Rush, chosen as the location of PG&E’s first general office, and whose downtown was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985; or Coloma, where the discovery of gold in 1848 put California on the map, contributed to its commercial, agricultural, and industrial development, and – not for nothing – where Mr. Picker, himself, has a home.

Secondly, it’s not like this problem crept up on us suddenly. We’ve known for years that overcrowded forest conditions and other factors were impacting forest health; and scientists have been predicting climate-induced effects like rising temperatures and more extreme weather conditions for almost as long.

Mark Arax concluded in his commentary on the Paradise (Camp) Fire that decades of bad political decisions (“greed, neglect, corruption”) around the location and growth of Paradise created the conditions where the town’s destruction by a massive wildfire was inevitable. That conclusion misses the other side of the equation: that similar decades of bad land management decisions have created conditions where the fire itself was inevitable because the forest was allowed to become so unhealthy.

Smart growth advocates, including SBC, have long fought to encourage compact growth in and near rural and urban town centers; and we’ve advocated for policies and funding to improve forest health. I agree we need to carefully consider development in areas we now know to be at high risk for wildfire. Rather than shaming people who live in rural areas, however, we need to work together to address our actions that lead to increased climate impacts, support actions that improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk, amend zoning and building codes to find better places to build and more resilient materials to build with, and, yes, assure fair treatment by insurance companies around fire risk. Only when we address both sides – where and how we develop, and the health of our surrounding forests – will we be able to turn this dynamic around.