The skyrocketing cost of fire insurance foreshadows a larger confrontation over so-called managed retreat.
Stu Smith got an email from his insurance company last summer with some bad news: His premium was more than quadrupling.
Smith is the co-owner of Smith Madrone, a wine operation in the mountains of California’s Sonoma Valley, and he had held a wildfire insurance policy with the company for more than 30 years. Now, though, the insurer had decided Smith’s property was too risky to keep on its customer rolls at anything close to its longtime price. If Smith wanted to renew his policy, he would have to pay annual premiums of more than $55,000, up from just $12,000 the year before.
The following week, as the LNU Lightning Complex Fire began to spread in the hills just east of Sonoma County, Smith scrambled to find a new insurance company. No private insurer seemed willing to issue him a policy, so at the last moment, he resorted to a state-run insurance plan that covered a portion of his property. The price was still orders of magnitude greater than what he’d grown used to: He would now have to pay $46,000 for an insurance plan that offered a fraction of the coverage his previous plan did.
After a few weeks, with the LNU fire still burning nearby, Smith gave in and signed up for the state-run plan, but many of his neighbors in Sonoma Valley did not. Hundreds of farm owners in California have found themselves forced to go without insurance coverage this past year, from ranchers along the Central Coast, nut growers outside San Diego, and winery owners like Smith in Sonoma and Napa Valley. Nobody knows for sure how many farm owners have lost coverage, but what’s clear is that the trend has sent shock waves through California’s agricultural regions.
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