California, Wary of More Wildfires, Is Paying for Them Already

anastasios pallis

CLEARLAKE, Calif. — Two thousand homes lost and two-thirds of the land burned: The residents of Lake County, a sparsely populated area north of Napa Valley, understand better than most the devastating cost of wildfires in recent years.

Yet few people in Lake County, or in many other fire-prone parts of California, could have anticipated the millions they are now spending this summer on wildfires, even before the first big one ignites.

Insurance rates have soared in some of the riskiest places, and some insurers are refusing to renew policies. Lake County politicians are fretting over the more than $700,000 the county is spending to install backup power generators for the courthouse, sheriff’s department and other government buildings. The generators are necessary because the power company has announced that this year it will turn off the power when fire risk is high.

“It’s a lot of money for us, but I really feel we don’t have a choice,” said Dennis Darling, who owns a supermarket in the town of Clearlake and is paying $100,000 to install a generator. “Every year we have these hellacious fires.”

The arrival of the peak fire season in California — a time of uninterrupted sunshine, hot winds and crackling-dry vegetation — has the state on edge. At every level, people are scrambling to prepare, from top politicians and officials to ordinary residents of Lake County, a community of 64,000 people with incomes around half the California average.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill earlier this month to provide up to $21 billion in compensation for future wildfire victims. In March, he announced emergency measures to manage forests in vulnerable areas. Pacific Gas & Electric, the electricity utility, has launched a fleet of drones to check aging power lines, which caused a number of recent fires, including the inferno that engulfed the town of Paradise, killing 85 people. Seven planes operated by the company are flying across the northern half of the state every day to look for possible fires.

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“I think we can say with assurance that we are safer today than we were yesterday,” said Bill Johnson, the chief executive officer of Pacific Gas & Electric, in an interview. “But this risk exists and can’t be eliminated.”

Made worse by climate change, wildfires are adding a mounting financial burden in California, a state where taxes are already high and housing costs exorbitant.

To the north, Oregon and Washington have had fewer wildfires so far this summer than were feared, but firefighters in the Northwest have shifted their attention to Alaska, where more than 900,000 acres have burned.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which already charges among the highest electricity rates in the country, is requesting that regulators approve an additional charge to customers of $2 billion over the next three years to help pay for wildfire safety improvements and other costs.

This is separate from the compensation fund approved last week, which includes more than $10 billion in costs to be borne by customers in the form of a levy on electricity bills for the next decade and a half.

And none of this will help pay the tens of billions of dollars in liabilities the company has for past fires where its equipment was involved.

So far this year, far fewer acres have burned in California compared with the same period last year. But firefighters are still worried.

“All this stuff burned, but it’s ready to burn again,” said William Sapeta, the chief of the Lake County Fire Protection District.

On a tour of vulnerable areas, where a light breeze carried the smoky odor of previous years’ fires, Chief Sapeta pointed to the overgrown grass covering the hillsides after a winter of generous rains.

He said residents had become hypervigilant, calling 911 when dust rises up from nearby quarries or when they smell what turns out to be their neighbors’ barbecue.

“There’s a lot of P.T.S.D,” Chief Sapeta said. “People call when they see any smoke whatsoever.”

Companies that study fire risk, like ImageCat or CoreLogic, estimate that one in 14 buildings in the state are at high or extreme risk of fire.

“All of the factors that contributed to previous fires are still there,” said Tom Jeffery, a specialist with CoreLogic. “There’s no reason to think that we can’t replicate or — I hate to say this — we could potentially exceed what we saw in the past fires.”

David McGiffert, a resident of Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles, received notice from his insurance company several weeks ago that his homeowner’s policy would not be renewed because of wildfire risk.

Mr. McGiffert, a 77-year-old retiree, said he had been insured by the company, Allstate, since 1997 and had never filed a claim related to his home, which is not far from the area burned in last year’s devastating Woolsey Fire.

“I don’t have any idea what we’re going to do,” Mr. McGiffert said. “Our house is our equity. It’s what we have to leave our children.”

Other insurance companies want five times the $1,800 a year he currently pays, Mr. McGiffert said.

California offers a plan of last resort, but with limited coverage.

The California Department of Insurance does not keep data on the number of people who lose their insurance because of wildfire risks, but the number of complaints it received on the issue has increased steadily over the past eight years, to 276 last year from 41 in 2010.

Ricardo Lara, the state insurance commissioner, said communities needed to show insurers that they are lowering their risk by clearing vegetation, building more fire-resilient structures — and in some areas, curtailing construction.

“Local governments need to rethink their development in this new era,” he said.

Gov. Newsom started his first term in January with the state in a growing crisis tied to wildfires. Days after he took office, PG & E filed for bankruptcy, reporting $30 billion in liabilities.

As part of a plan devised by Mr. Newsom to guard against future wildfires, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire, for the first time designated areas in about 20 counties as priorities.

The hot zones span major metropolitan areas in Central and Southern California like San Diego and Fresno counties, as well as the communities of Carmel Highlands in Monterey County and parts of Mendocino and Contra Costa counties. The hope is to prevent the kinds of huge fires that devastated the state’s wine country in 2017.

“I don’t think anybody imagined that fires could get that large and that destructive,” said Pedro Pizarro, president of Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison, the major utility in the Los Angeles area.

Edison has targeted locations that the company predicts will be in need of protection in the next several months. They include the Shaver Lake area in Fresno County, where the Big Creek hydroelectric plant sits. So far, Edison has carried out controlled burns to prevent the spread of any fires that might start in the region.

Some worried residents are taking their own steps, buying generators and batteries so they can disconnect from the grid. The California Solar and Storage Association says it has seen a spike in interest in home battery systems.

“Those people who do have solar are now coming back for battery backup,” said Rainier de Ocampo, vice president for marketing at Solar Optimum, a solar power and storage contractor. “We’re seeing more and more of that over the last three or four years now, because of the threat of wildfires, the threat of an earthquake.”

Susanne Polos said she and her husband decided last fall that they needed their own energy storage system. The Polos live in Contra Costa County, which has one of the two largest areas on the governor’s priority list with more than 26,000 acres designated for wildfire protection.

Ms. Polos, a nurse, recalls the power going out 10 times in the past year. If she and her family need to get out because of a fire, she said, she wants to be able to keep her Nissan Leaf electric car charged.

“Me getting a battery is more about emergency preparedness,” Ms. Polos said.

Pete Parkinson, a retired city planner in Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties, said the wildfires of recent years have led to a broad reassessment of how much the state can protect its residents.

“I’m going to be 65 this summer,” Mr. Parkinson said. “When I think back what life was as a young boy in California, you always felt like you were in this blessed place. Yeah, we had earthquakes once in a while. But there was an idea that if you lived in a developed place, a subdivision, that you were safe. The increasing fire hazards has put the lie to that.”

Mr. Parkinson published an article last year that amounted to a mea culpa as a city planner. “We thought we had adequately anticipated the hazards and had planned accordingly,” he wrote. “We were wrong.”

Where is safe? Bonnie Ramsey had a ranch house outside Clearlake surrounded by meadow, with mature oak trees spaced far apart. Her house and many of her neighbors’ homes burned in 2016. But several hundred yards away, a road thickly shrouded in vegetation was untouched.

Ms. Ramsey has rebuilt, but she still sometimes wakes up and feels as though she is in a stranger’s home. She reaches into her kitchen drawer for a potato peeler, but realizes she is thinking of her old kitchen. The only items that survived the fire were a porcelain cookie jar and candle holders.

“I don’t think it’s something that we’ll ever get over,” she said.

This article is from NYT – go to source

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