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Fire risk leaves Napa County community scrambling after insurers drop coverage

On top of all of the other challenges facing California the state's insurance crisis is getting worse. This week, Farmers Insurance followed State Farm and Allstate in announcing a cap on California policies, citing "inflation, severe weather events, and reconstruction costs." And that means more places where finding coverage is a huge challenge.

Just three weeks ago, the Snell Fire burned 100 acres in Napa County - not far from the community of Lake Berryessa Estates. The people living there have seen a number of fires in recent years - policies are getting dropped, and even the local fire captain is looking for insurance.

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"There were some trees back here," Mark Amador said of his backyard, "I cleaned them all up. It's pretty clear, you know."

Amador knows all about fire risk in his community. Berryessa Estates, with just one road in and out, has been evacuated four times in the past five years.

"It's about a 25-minute response time for anyone to get out here," he said of significant help in the event of a major fire.

Amador would know, he is the local fire chief, and he lives right behind the local firehouse. All that wasn't enough to save him from the letter.

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"Your policy will be terminated as of the non-renewal date and time shown above," he read from the letter.

The chief's not alone. 

"Basically, got a letter in the mail," said his next-door neighbor Robert Paselk. "Yeah, so now I'm out, without insurance."

"It was reasonable and then they jacked it up to $6,000 a year," said resident Karen Whitmore.

The insurance horror stories continue all the way up the hill, where Whitmore's home barely escaped the 2020 LNU fire.

"When I first moved in here, I thought, 'I hope I'm not here to see this burn,'" she said of the hills around her home. "Then I watched it in real-time on YouTube"

"I worked all my life and I have a home," said resident Gail Bickett. "But it's not a safe place."

Bickett heads the local FireSafe Council, advocating for safety programs like the tree removal underway here. But on top of the actual fire risk is financial risk in a troubled insurance market.

"These people are up here because they're not really wealthy," she said. "This is a retirement, blue-collar neighborhood."

"I'm on a fixed income," Paselk said. "On my Social Security. I'm retired."

Lake Berryessa Estates is just one example of a story playing out across California where entire communities are at risk of becoming uninsured. It's an unsustainable situation that the state and coverage providers are now fighting over in Sacramento.

"Really where we are is, we are in a political showdown with the insurance industry," said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog.

Rosenfield is talking about the debate over how insurance markets should operate as a changing climate drives increasing risk, and soaring costs.

"For people right now, who are searching for an insurance company, there's something called the FAIR plan," he said.

"So we got California FAIR housing," said Whitmore. "Which doesn't cover as much. But it does cover fire."

The state's FAIR plan is one option, considered moderately priced.

"I've been shopping around," Paselk said. "But the problem is, it skyrocketed."

As for Amador he got another letter from his mortgage provider.

"They're planning to buy insurance for me," Amador said. "Which is fine because I can't find any insurance."

"I don't even want to raise my head and say 'come look, do I need to be more insured,'' Bickett said of her situation. "Because I'm sure they'll cancel me. I'm afraid to."

There are 183 homes in Lake Berryessa Estates. Every one of them is considered at severe risk of fire, driving up the cost of living in this quiet corner of Napa County.

"It's beautiful," Bickett said of her community. "It's peaceful. We just live in a high fire zone."

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