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Homeowners Insurance May Be Harder To Get In Risky Wildfire Areas

Rae Ellen Bichell
Mountain West News Bureau
Wildfire mitigation specialist Ben Yellin searches a home in Boulder County for vulnerabilities, pointing to a vent where embers could get trapped.

A few months ago, John Parker retired and moved into a salmon-colored log house on a mountain called Tungsten in unincorporated Boulder County.

"Just to get a little piece of heaven, get away from the madding crowd," he says.

Inside, a wood-fired stove fills the house with heat and a low hum. Outside, the snow feels like thick, gritty icing. The wind barrels up a slope, gathering snow into a glittery stream. When the glitter stream meets the house, it curves around and hugs it, piling up around the back steps. It does not feel like the time to think about wildfires. But if that same wind was carrying embers instead of snow, those would follow the same path and instead of glittering, that pile by the back door would be glowing.

Across the Mountain West, more and more people are moving into the wildland-urban interface, which means more homes are at a higher risk of getting damaged by wildfires. Insurance companies are taking note.

"It took a lot of legwork to even get one insurance company who would cover the property because of the wildfire concerns," says Parker. "They just basically said, 'Oh, that area, that zone. We don't insure anyone there.'"

Credit Rae Ellen Bichell / Mountain West News Bureau
Mountain West News Bureau
According to Verisk Wildfire Risk Analysis, Mountain West states are in the top 7 for having the highest percentage of households that are at high or extreme risk from wildfire.

Spokespeople for state insurance departments in the Mountain West say they have no indication that homeowners are being denied insurance altogether. But according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, Parker's experience is becoming more common for homeowners in risky wildfire areas.

"You will pay a higher price to live in a high-risk wildfire area. You may have to shop around more for that insurance. You may be pushed to a higher risk insurer where in the past you could just go with your regular insurer that you've had for 20 years," says Carole Walker, executive director of RMIIA, a trade group representing insurance companies in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. "But the biggest piece that I've seen insurance companies focus on … is where you can put the odds in your favor. Insurance companies are getting much more specific and looking at much more comprehensive mitigation.”

Parker, who eventually found an insurer, is one of the people who would like to put the odds in his favor.

"When I was driving up here in the summer, there were fire ban signs all up and down Coal Creek Canyon. And you could just tell everybody up here was very concerned," he says. "It does kind of get in the back of your mind that you need to do whatever you can to defend."

Those concerns have brought Ben Yellin to Parker's porch today. Yellin is a mitigation specialist with Wildfire Partners, a collaborative program led by Boulder County that helps homeowners like John Parker keep their little pieces of heaven from becoming big pieces of charcoal.

Homeowners pay $100 to for someone like Yellin to visit their property and make suggestions on how to prevent their homes from going up in smoke. Several insurance companies accept their certification as proof that a homeowner has properly readied their property.

Programs like this aren't too common across our region, though others in Colorado include REALFire and the West Region Wildfire Council. Where they are available, Walker says insurance companies are increasingly requiring that homes get certified through them.

"We do the 360 defensible space because you don't necessarily know where the fire's coming from. It could start from a lightning strike over there. It could start from a house fire close to you. Or it could be a large wildfire coming off of, say, public lands," says Yellin.

In the next couple hours, Parker and Yellin will circle the property, imagining all the ways in which the log house could be disastrously incinerated within a 100-foot radius.

Credit Rae Ellen Bichell / Mountain West News Bureau
Mountain West News Bureau
Wildfire mitigation specialist Ben Yellin (left) and Boulder County homeowner John Parker (right) walk the property, marking trees that need to be cut down with a spray of blue paint.

The wooden chairs on the deck, for example, are a fire hazard. So is the cozy stack of firewood uphill from the house that, Yellin explains, could become a stack of rolling fireballs if it were to ignite. The low juniper bushes peeking through the snow all around the house are resin-packed kindling. Aspen trees, on the other hand, are keepers.

"We don't actually require any homeowners to cut aspen trees because it brings up the relative humidity because they hold so much water and so it actually is a deterrent for fire spread," says Yellin.

And then there are the embers. Back in 2011, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety stuck houses inside a warehouse and then pelted them with flames, wind, heat and streams of embers. They found that, out of all of those, embers were most likely to light up a house. Parker will have to put a thin layer of metal around nooks and crannies, so embers die out rather than gnawing at the house.

Yellin takes a can of spray paint out of his pocket. Apart from the aspens, other trees on the property will be biggest piece of work. Everything that needs to go will get a spurt of blue on it, like the pines growing near the shed, the trees with mistletoe covering their weakened branches, and the ones that could help a fire to ladder its way from the ground up into the tree crowns.

When Yellin comes back to check on the property, he'll make sure all the blue marks have been cut down and hauled away. He says homes that do this kind of mitigation have a better chance of surviving. He would know. As a former wildland firefighter, he's defended homes like this one.

"Some homes that didn’t do the work didn’t hold up so well," Yellin says.

But often, homes that did do mitigation fared better. In some cases, he says, firefighters could actually use those homes as part of their defense line against the blaze.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.