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The neighbor's fire-prone shrubs practically price the Oakland resident their home insurance – Berkeleyside

Daniel Grassetti's household insurance (house on the left) was not extended due to the condition of the property opposite. He appealed and Allstate overturned his decision two weeks later. Courtesy Daniel Grassetti

In late August, forest fire prevention advocate Dan Grassetti opened a letter from Allstate, his house's insurer, with some alarming (and just a little ironic) news. His policy would not be renewed because of a fire hazard.

The surprising thing: the danger was not on his property, but on the property opposite.

Grassetti, the founder of the Hills Conservation Network, a vocal forest fire prevention organization, said he always tended the vegetation on his Alvarado Road property to meet prevention standards – cutting brush and grass, trimming Trees. In early summer, he passed the Oakland City's annual forest fire inspection.

His home, located in a government-designated high-risk area over Claremont Canyon, is technically in Oakland but has a mailing address in Berkeley – which is not uncommon for homes that stretch across city limits. It survived the 1991 Oakland firestorm by a few doors.

Allstate's non-renewal notice was staggering, Grassetti said, and he was impressed by that line in the letter: "There is a fire hazard due to bushes on or near your property." Phone calls with his agent confirmed that it was the vacant lot across from his home and not his land, he said.

He immediately appealed the decision, claiming he was not responsible for his neighbor's property. And last week the company reversed course, said Grassetti. He's waiting for an extension letter, but his agent so far has only told him that a new inspector has been sent to the site.

This case is unusual, but not uncommon in the Bay Area, say wildland fire insurance experts, noting that each season of devastating fires puts those navigating cover on safer terrain.

Insurance woes from the high risk areas of forest fires in the East Bay are becoming increasingly common. It is becoming increasingly difficult for homeowners in these neighborhoods to get insurance that is expensive, if any, and often watered down. It is becoming increasingly difficult for insurance companies to take the financial risks of forest fires as once infrequent disasters become routine.

In some areas of the state, entire zip codes are rejected by home insurers due to high fire risk. Grassetti's insurance roller coaster ride is another sign of this turbulence, experts say.

"I don't know if Allstate was trying to move away from this market as a whole or had a problem with my house, but the photos of the problem they took had nothing to do with my house in particular," said Grassetti on September 2nd. "According to a Farmers agent I spoke to yesterday, all insurers are withdrawing from insuring homes in high fire risk zones."

It's rare, but legal, to base a policy on the terms of a neighboring property, said Joel Laucher, advisor to nonprofit advocacy group United Policy Holders and former assistant insurance commissioner for the state.

"Of course you can't give a person land that they don't own," said Laucher. "(Insurance companies) cannot tell you to clear land that your neighbor owns, but they can tell you that there is no brushing risk within a certain number of meters of your house."

Brush across the street

Peggy Smith, Grassetti's Berkeley-based Allstate broker, said she couldn't comment on individual guidelines. She confirmed that she is in contact with Grassetti. "I'm working on that with the inspectors," she said in an interview with Berkeleyside before Grassetti learned that the non-renewal had been reversed.

When Grassetti received his non-renewal letter, it included a photo of the land across the street that Allstate said led to his initial decision to cut it off. The land did not meet the company's 100-foot defense space standards for its home, the letter said. Defensible space generally refers to land near a house or structure that is cleared to minimize the spread of fire.

The picture shows a shrubby slope uphill from Alvarado Road. According to Alameda County's parcel maps, there are three contiguous parcels of land on its hill, including the property across from Grassetti's house. The Oakland parcels are owned by the same San Francisco company, Y&H Company, according to property tax records.

Mike Hunt, spokesman for the Oakland Fire Department's Forest Fire Inspection Program, said all three packages (48H-7652-25, 48H-7652-26,48H-7653-11) were inspected by the department in July and found non-compliant. for failing to clear the roadside vegetation sufficiently. "

The lots were also non-compliant in 2020, Hunt said.

As per the requirements of the Oakland Fire Department:

“Vegetation that grows along the road should be cut back. Three meters is the recommended distance, but in some cases it may be less. Limbs that protrude above the road and are less than 4.5 m above the ground should be cut back to the edge of the road. Trimming the vegetation along the pavement improves vehicle access, increases lines of sight, and creates a fuel break that could help stop the spread of forest fires. "

As of last week, all but one of the lots have "weakened since then," said Hunt. There is a pile of vegetation on one property that needs to be removed for final compliance, he said. (However, Grassetti said he hasn't seen any signs of clearing or work on the property lately.)

Berkeleyside has contacted the Y&H Company for comment. A person reached by phone said he would give a reporter's phone number to the person who owned the Oakland property. Nobody from the company called.

Different standards create blind spots

Residents of high risk forest fire areas, which make up most of the East Bay Hills, risk fines, liens, or non-renewal of insurance for failing to meet their city (or county for non-enlisted areas) fire safety standards and their home insurance.

While experts agree on the importance of requiring people to reduce the risk of fire on their property, conflicting or unclear requirements can present challenges.

Fire departments and insurance companies do not share notes.

A property owner may stick to his city only to learn that the insurance company wants something different, as Grassetti did.

Smith, Grassetti's insurance broker, said she had no idea how the Oakland Fire Department's requirements compare to Allstate's. Hunt, the Oakland Fire spokesman, said the same thing. "I'm not aware of the specifics Allstate uses to approve or deny, and it's not necessarily based on our inspection log," said Hunt.

What's even more confusing is that different insurance companies have different regulations so a property owner can be okay with their city and insurance provider but jeopardize a neighbor's insurance coverage without knowing it.

"I'm sure it creates hostility," said Laucher. “Ten years ago we might not have liked it, but it would not result in non-renewal. Now it's a much bigger concern. "

However, he said, "in general, most insurance companies don't necessarily get to this point with their policyholders."

In California, it is not easy for insurance companies to cancel a homeowner policy after it has been in place for at least 60 days, but they are free to choose not to renew a policy with a required 45 day written notice.

Temporary cancellation and non-renewal moratoriums, which the state has issued for certain postal codes in or near fire disaster areas, are an exception.

Insurance companies assign a rating to every property in high risk fire areas based on a variety of factors including fuel load (vegetation that could burn) and slope – fires usually burn uphill faster. High score properties are prone to higher insurance costs, insurance denials, and non-renewals. The scores, which are usually calculated by specialist data companies, are private.

"You can set any standard as long as it is applied objectively, in a risk-related manner and consistently," said Laucher.

His organization, United Policy Holders, campaigns nationwide for standardized, evidence-based measures to reduce the risk of fire.

The organization also encourages local residents to work together on measures to protect against forest fires, for example through the organization of Firewise Communities, a risk reduction program run by the National Fire Protection Association.

The main goal of the program is neighborhood safety, but participation can also help reduce insurance costs.

It's also the drumbeat of Oakland Firesafe Council, an education and advocacy group that serves the entire Alameda County, said Sue Piper, council president. Piper is also a board member of United Police Holders.

“You have to organize your neighborhood; You have to start thinking about defensible space, "said Piper," You are only as strong as your weakest link. "

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