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Insurance companies pushing mountain residents to firescape their properties

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BOULDER, Colo. - Colorado's average fire season has been a double-edged sword for Brett Gibson, a volunteer fire department chief in the tree-covered hills west of Boulder.

He appreciates the lower threat of fires. But he is having difficulty getting residents to do some of the work that would ease fire risks even more -- cutting down nearby trees and brush to create "defensible space" between forest and home, and storing firewood and combustible chemicals.

But Gibson is getting some help from a persuasive source: insurance companies, which are starting to inspect properties to see if owners are firescaping and taking other precautions to mitigate the fire threat. Insurers are starting to deny new policies and stop renewing others if they don't see an effort.

"It's on the radar of every single insurance company, but the difficulty is getting people's attention," said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. "If they don't take preventive steps, they do lose their home. It's difficult to make people understand that people can reduce the risk by doing defensible space."

Jim Frederikson, executive director of the Arizona Insurance Information Association, said insurance rates are being determined by how much firescaping is done and if homes have been built or remodeled with more fire-resistant material.

Gibson, who has approximately 450 homes under his watch, said it was easier to persuade people to work on their properties during the high-risk fire season last year. He said only about 100 homes have been firescaped "to some point."

"People move to the mountains to be in the forest," he said. "Now we're asking those people to pull the forest away from their homes."

Gibson has been butting heads with George Jayne, who has lived in a Boulder-area subdivision for more than 20 years. His white-brick home is surrounded by 2-foot-tall grass, bushes and pine trees. A collapsed barn sits nearby, a wood shed is attached to the home and scrap wood is strewn about.

Jayne is a former volunteer firefighter who has battled wildfires. But he said he wants to keep all the plant life he has, since a prior owner of the property logged trees around the area and Jayne says he hasn't been able to grow anything since.

"If the house goes, I'd rather it all go, even though I don't want it to go," he said.

Jayne said he hasn't been contacted by his insurance agent yet, but "I'll deal with it when it comes to that point."

Insurance companies in California have the government behind them: laws requiring defensible space have been on the books for decades. It was a step taken as more and more people moved into the mountains, raising the stakes of a devastating fire, said Jerry Davies, director of communications of the Personal Insurance Federation of California.

Davies said people are still filing claims from 2003 fires that burned in Southern California, killing 24 people and causing more than $2 billion in insurance claims. He said companies are asking some residents to replace their shake roofs with more fire-resistant ones.

"I have heard that people have been told that they must get defensible space done to their homes or their policies won't be renewed," he said.

State Farm Insurance began a firescaping pilot program three years ago in six states, including Arizona and Colorado. Agents assess high-risk properties for what needs to be done, and allow residents up to 29 months to get the work done.

Steve Niccolai, the company's fire operations supervisor and loss mitigation coordinator, said the program was started to limit expensive claims.

"We looked at our own book of business and at the rising trend of fires, and we see that we're starting to get larger ones, ones that are thousands and thousands of acres," Niccolai said. "And we're looking at more people moving into more wooded areas where they're more popular, more susceptible."

Niccolai said the pilot program covering 26,000 customers has been successful.

West of Boulder, Jay and Annette Donaghy said they were against firescaping until they spoke to residents who lost their homes in a 1989 fire that roared through the nearby Sugarloaf community, causing $10 million in damage. They got rid of trees and cleared out grass and low-growing bushes.

"I had a hard time with the trees, I cried when they were cut down," Annette Donaghy said. "But now, I'll never look at them the same again. I look at them as fuel for a fire."

The Donaghys are remodeling their home with different roofing, fiber-cement siding, fire-resistant wood and synthetic-wood decking. They got help from a federal grant, and say they are seeing their work pay off with a better view of the mountains and more money in their pockets.

"We saw a definite reduction in our insurance premium," Jay Donaghy said.

The Donaghys say they are also doing this as an example for their neighbors - help Gibson said he will gladly take.

"In the city, you need to go out and mow the lawn and clear your gutters," he said. "Here, you need to mow your trees to clear your gutters of pine needles."

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The five most expensive wildland fires -- in insured losses -- in the United States from 1970 to 2004 (dollar amounts adjusted for inflation):

  • $2.36 billion: Oakland and Alameda counties, October 1991

  • $1.09 billion: San Diego County, October-November 2003

  • $1 billion: San Bernardino County, October-November 2003

  • $490 million: Los Angeles County, November 1993

  • $458 million: Orange County, October 1993

    Source: Property Claim Services of ISO and the Insurance Information Institute

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    On the Net:

    Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction: http://www.iclr.org/index.htm

    Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association: http://www.rmiia.org

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