The majority of California homes have a wildfire score, a property-specific rating provided by a third-party organization such as CoreLogic and Verisk Analytics FireLine. The scores are used by insurance agencies to assess a home’s risk of being damaged or destroyed in a wildfire.
Over the past decade, there has been a significant increase of wildfires in California. The wildland urban interface (WUI) has also seen a dramatic uptick in development. WUI are locations where human-made structures and infrastructure, such as cell towers, schools, water supply facilities, and the like, are in or adjacent to land prone to wildfire. These two dynamics coalesce to create a much higher fire risk for residential property.
Many homeowners don’t know their wildfire score, or that there is even such a thing. They often learn of it the hard way, when their insurance provider denies coverage, doesn’t allow renewal of their homeowner’s insurance, or the price of their policy increases dramatically.
Since 2010, more and more insurance companies have turned to fire scores to help them choose which policies to underwrite and mitigate their exposure to high-risk properties. These scores also allow insurers to avoid time consuming on-site property visits to assess individual homes.
Fire scores are individual to each residential property and take numerous factors into account including:
- Vegetation surrounding a home
- Slope of the property (the flatter the better)
- Ease of access to the property by fire personnel
Each organization that provides residential fire score data has its own rating scale. Verisk’s FireLine is ranked from 0 to 30, with 0 being the lowest and 30 the most extreme risk. But their scoring also ranks everything from 4 through 30 as high to extremely high risk; only 0-3 scores are considered low risk.
CoreLogic has a different scale, which runs from 0 to 100, with 0 to 50 considered low risk. In addition to vegetation and terrain, CoreLogic’s ranking system also considers past wildfires, and the distance to the nearest high-risk area.
Some companies rely solely on fire scores to assess wildfire risk, but a good number also look to other factors. CoreLogic recommends in addition to the fire score, insurers also look at:
- Construction of home and materials used
- Roofing material
- Defensible space
- Large-scale community fire mitigation efforts
Many insurers will also look at exposure hazards within a quarter mile surrounding the property being assessed.
Every insurance company determines its specific wildfire risk level and not all insurance companies use fire scores. State Farm doesn’t rely on these rankings and Amica Mutual only utilizes them when underwriting but not for determining renewals or pricing. For homeowners unable to obtain insurance through any other carrier, the Fair Plan, an association of state-licensed companies issue limited coverage insurance policies, is often the last resort.
Fire scores are sold to insurance companies, not consumers. If a homeowner is denied coverage, the insurer must provide a reason, which may be as generic as “wildfire risk.” You will have to specifically request your wildfire score and the company that provided it.
In January 2018, a report issued by the State of California Department of Insurance stated that third party wildfire risk models are not specifically regulated by the department or any other entity. It also stated that there are no standards to ensure fire score accuracy or dependability in either policy pricing or underwriting. The report also said that there is no way for consumers to appeal these scores.
For homebuyers, it is wise to contact your insurance agency to obtain the property’s fire score prior to purchasing. This information can help you determine the property’s risk level and if the home is a wise investment decision, especially for homes located in forested locations with limited access. Unlike one’s credit score, a home’s fire score isn’t significantly influenced by measures taken by homeowners to reduce their property’s hazard probability.
The good news is that the majority of homes in Silicon Valley have low-risk fire score ratings. In Santa Clara County, 99 to 100 percent of homes have a fire score of 50 or below on the CoreLogic scale. 91 to 96 percent of residences in other Bay Area counties fall within that same range.
Knowledge is power. Being informed of your home’s wildfire score is vital, particularly if you reside in a rural, wooded area or are adjacent to land that has been impacted by wildfires in the past.