Neighbors Organize with Fire and Insurance Concerns

Photo by Justin Acton 

Pictured left to right: Ben Lomond Fire Chief Stacie Brownlee, Felton Fire Chief Bob Gray, Supervisor Bruce McPherson

Residential Group Forms

Ben Lomond, Felton and Lompico neighbors are organizing to generate awareness of increased wildfire risks and fire-related homeowners insurance cancellations. They’re working with local fire department officials and neighborhoods to bring more organizations and lawmakers into the mix. '

Years of dry brush accumulation throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, near roadways and dense neighborhoods, an increase in homeless encampments over an expanding area and lack of funding on all fronts have exacerbated the potential for what fire professionals and residents alike warn could be a large-scale disaster along the magnitude of recent Butte, Mendocino and Shasta County wildfires.

Hihn Road resident Justin Acton created the Hihn and McAdams Wildfire Prevention Coalition, a public group on Facebook. The coalition’s goals are to “share defensible space ideas for individual homeowners. Discuss large projects for the area. Share information about insurance companies who will cover, or no longer will cover our area. Keep government agencies aware and connected. Build connections with neighbors.” And “to help mitigate wildfire risk to our neighborhoods”.

The Hihn and McAdams Road neighborhoods are at particular risk due to multiple factors, according to Felton Fire Chief Bob Gray. The neighborhoods are upslope and downwind from a dry brush portion of Daybreak Camp and county owned land adjacent to Mount Hermon Road that has seen an uptick in homeless encampments. Residents nearby have seen nighttime campfires coming from this area during the winter, spring and into the summer.

The recent Martin vs. Boise Supreme Court ruling has affected how law enforcement can act on homeless camping on public property. Arrest or displacement is no longer allowed unless adequate sheltered options are provided. While shelter options are available nearby in Santa Cruz, many unhoused individuals prefer not to live in what they see as restrictive environments.

Compounding matters is the lack of budget to deal with fuel load - the flammable brush that has accumulated over time. Gray said, “We’re trying to tap into grant money, but many of those require a 50-50 match. Meanwhile, the fuel loads have grown to the point where we realize we have to do something, but the sheer quantity is insurmountable. So we’re looking at a community approach and regional projects at this point with three fire districts – Felton, Ben Lomond, and Zayante.”

Gray has been in communication with the county's Public Works department and Supervisor Bruce Mcpherson’s office to determine what resources the county can contribute. “We have the attention of a lot of people now. We’re getting the momentum going. And it’s not like the only project is in my district. Other places nearby could benefit from our process.”

Gray points out that, while there is a homeless encampment component to the fire risk, there are other risk factors including backfiring cars, tossed cigarettes, and homeowner and renter activity. Daybreak Camp Daybreak has committed money and resources, including patrols to keep campers out and report those activities to the sheriff. Gray says they are doing a great job, but it’s a large property and much of the camping occurs on county-owned land.

Acton has scheduled a June 18 meeting in Felton for Hihn and McAdams Road residents to further organize and to hear from Felton Fire Chief Bob Gray.

Insurance Policies Canceled

Ann Dye's Lompico home was insured by Geico’s Traveler’s Insurance for over 20 years with no claims on record. Her policy renewal date this year was May 26. She received a letter from Geico in advance of that date indicating that due to fire losses in California of over $18 billion the company would no longer be insuring specific locations in California including Dye's property. Geico, and subsequent insurers contacted by Dye, had designated her property as a “Brush Fire Location” as a basis for denial. Dye was advised to seek a local insurer familiar with the area and with broker capabilities in order to cast a wider net on possible viable policies. Comments on the Nextdoor.com neighborhood app indicate widespread cancellations from AAA and 2- and 3-fold increases from State Farm. Dye contacted Assemblymember Mark Stone’s office and was referred to their online complaint form and the Department of Insurance

A Hihn Road resident posted on Nextdoor that her AAA policy was canceled due to wind direction, a characteristic of the terrain confirmed by fire officials, and a Wild Fire Area designation.

Leah Pinedo, office manager in Michael Boffy’s Farmers Insurance office in Felton told us that agencies diverge on their ability to cover homes determined to be in high fire hazard regions with some companies pulling out of California entirely. Pinedo described what is referred to in the industry as a “FireLine Score” which estimates, sometimes indiscriminately, the threat of wildfire loss to the insurance company on a scale of 0 (low risk) to 30 (high risk). The scoring system was implemented by Insurance Services Office (ISO) in 1990s to help insurance companies assess property and casualty risk.

The ISO developed the FireLine rating system criteria based on 3 critical factors according to property address:

• Fuel — Dry, dense grasses, trees, and brush calculated as an average weight.

• Slope — Steeper slopes increase windspeed and intensity of wildfire and impact engineering and rebuilding costs.

• Access — IDs ability for firefighters and equipment to access the property through number, quality, and locations of roads in proximity to main thoroughfares.

Your FireLine Score can be found by contacting your local insurer.

Are you a Santa Cruz Mountains resident who has experienced a denial of services or nonrenewal of your homeowner’s insurance due to a designation of fire risk? Contact the Press Banner at pbeditor@pressbanner.com or mary@pressbanner.com.

RESOURCES

June 18 Meeting for Hihn and McAdams Road neighbors. 7:00 p.m. at Felton Firehouse.

June 25 Resource Conservation District: ‘Living on Rural Properties’ Meeting for the general public. 6:00 p.m. at Felton Community Hall.

Free wood chipping from Fire Safe Santa Cruz County: www.firesafesantacruz.org/no-cost-chipping

Create Defensible Space: www.calfire.ca.gov/communications/downloads/fact_sheets/2007DefSpaceBrochure.pdf

Sign up for Code Red, the reverse 911 service at www.scr911.org.

Report suspicious activity or campfires to the police. Emergency is 911. Non-emergency is 471-1121

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