Fires imperil homeowner’s insurance in Sisters Country

 

Last updated 2/23/2022 at Noon

Bill Bartlett

The Green Ridge Fire north of Sisters — one of many wildfires that have disrupted life in Sisters Country.

Living amidst a forest in a multi-year drought has gotten the attention of your insurance company. After the catastrophic fires and resultant claims losses from western states wildfires, a number of insurance carriers have dropped homeowners insurance altogether. Others have raised rates or limited the areas they will insure.

Zip code 97759, Sisters Country, 97702 (south and southeast Bend), and 97739 (La Pine) are in the crosshairs according to Jennifer Burroughs, an agent with Farmers Insurance in Sisters run by Jason Rybka, a 12-year career insurance specialist. Burroughs tells The Nugget that Farmers is being far more selective and conservative in their underwriting.

She and Rybka are often not able to write policies for new homeowners in much of 97759.

“If you live outside the city limits, we basically cannot write you,” Burroughs said. “Our existing clients are grandfathered for the most part, but are unlikely to get policies adjusted to cover additions to the home, like porches, workshops, any add-on. And if any premium is delinquent, the policy is canceled and cannot be renewed.”

She urges homeowners to stay current with premiums and not give insurers any reason, however slight, to walk away from the policy holder.

“It all is driven by your FireLine Score,” Burroughs said.

Think of it much like you would a credit score only for your home. Instead of how creditworthy are you, how defensible is your home? Insurers use risk predictions to draw hard assessment lines around homes, making some properties uninsurable by name-brand companies like State Farm, Farmers Insurance, and AAA.

The most popular wildfire risk model, known as FireLine, uses a 0 to 30 scale, with a score of 30 assigned to the riskiest homes.

Several researchers say the insurance industry’s models don’t use all available fire science.

FireLine essentially considers three things: topography, the amount of burnable vegetation around a home, and how easily fire departments can reach a home.

Those factors certainly help predict fire. But scientists say all kinds of other things make a home more or less likely to burn, including whether the home is new and built with fire-resistant features. FireLine does not account for how a home is built.

Most homes in Sisters Country score no higher than a 5 and most, like those in town, are a 2 or 3. Based on an area’s fuel, slope, and access, a score is assigned to a property. A score of 0-1 is negligible or low fire risk. A score of 2-3 is a moderate fire risk. Scoring 4-12 means you are at high risk. Extreme wildfire risk is between 13 and 30. If your score is over 3, be prepared to be canceled, limited to existing policy coverages, and/or see a rate increase.

How it is calculated

• Fuel: The type/amount of brush, trees, and vegetation within a one-quarter- to one-mile radius that can catch on fire. This type of “fuel” can feed a wildfire. Many carriers decline to quote a home insurance policy if they are within 100 to 2,500 feet of brush. If a home is surrounded by unmanaged vegetation and/or trees hang over or touch the roof, this may be an issue (regardless of how close your home is to brush).

• Slope: The combination of the land’s slope, terrain, and wind pattern can cause a fire to move faster or slower.

• Access: This is how easy (or difficult) it is for a fire truck to access your property. Is the road paved? Is it wide enough? Is there more than one point of entry (or only one way to get it in and out of the area)? Is the home located on a cul-de-sac? How far is the property from the main road? Answers to these questions can affect the accessibility for firefighters to reach a property to attempt to save it.

Burroughs has been unable to write new policies for Tollgate and even in Cold Springs Village; she reports that a home inside the city limits near the high school yet close to the open forest was denied. She expects the problem to worsen, particularly if we have another year of record wildfire losses.

She is pleased, albeit confounded, that they can still issue policies for homes in Camp Sherman, which was perilously close to a wildfire in 2020 and whose terrain is much like Sisters. They are in zip code 97730, unaffected.

Tammy Taylor of Bisnett Insurance in Sisters is finding similar distress for area property owners. Unlike Rybka and Burroughs, who represent only one company, Taylor has more options as an agent for multiple carriers. With that said, she admits that it is of major concern and a daily topic of discussion.

FireLine is not to be confused with Firewise, the standards and practices that many Sisters Country homes and subdivisions are adopting. The national Firewise recognition program provides a collaborative framework to help neighbors in a geographic area get organized, find direction, and take action to increase the ignition resistance of their homes and community and to reduce wildfire risks at the local level.

 

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