As wildfires once again threaten Californians, Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara is alerting consumers to new insurance protections in effect for the summer wildfire season that increase payouts and evacuation benefits for wildfire survivors. These reforms are the result of input received from past wildfire survivors that Commissioner Lara championed in the State Legislature.
“I listened to the uphill battles that wildfire survivors face in their efforts to recover and rebuild their lives and I took on the insurance companies,” said Commissioner Lara, whose Department of Insurance has held in-person meetings in 36 counties to listen to the needs of consumers. “These new insurance protections for wildfire survivors will mean larger payouts for some claims and less red tape from insurance companies.”
Last year, Commissioner Lara sponsored Senate Bill 872, authored by Senator Bill Dodd and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, to create the following new protections for wildfire survivors despite opposition to the measure by the insurance industry:
- Insurance companies can no longer deduct the land value when paying an insurance claim if a wildfire survivor chooses to relocate rather than rebuild their home at the same location — which will lead to higher payouts for consumers. After recent major wildfires, some insurance companies refused to include the value of land lost as a result of wildfires when paying a total loss claim, reducing the total payout by tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. This change gives homeowners more choices in whether to rebuild or relocate their new home.
- Residents under mandatory evacuation for wildfire, even if they suffer no damage to their home, will receive additional living expenses for at least two weeks, with extensions for good cause.
- Insurance companies cannot restrict additional living expenses if a home is rendered uninhabitable due to a wildfire or other covered peril, even if the damage is not to the property itself. This addresses the problems after recent major fires when insurance companies denied benefits even though damaged power and water lines made homes uninhabitable. An insurance company may provide a reasonable alternative remedy that addresses the property condition, such as a portable generator in the case of downed power lines or a portable water source.
- In cases of a total loss related to a state of emergency, insurance companies must provide an advance payment of no less than four months of additional living expenses if the consumer requests it, with additional benefits due after the advance period upon proper documentation.
- Wildfire survivors do not have to use a company-specific inventory form for lost contents and can include groupings of categories such as clothing, shoes, books, food items, and DVDs rather than having to list individual items.
- Insurance companies must offer a 60-day grace period on payment of policy premiums for properties located within the affected area defined in the declared state of emergency.
“With the frequency and devastation of wildfires in California, it’s essential that people who suffer damage or loss of a home get the coverage they deserve from their insurance company,” said Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa). “It’s why I wrote my legislation, which targets unnecessary delays for assistance and streamlines the claims process, bringing peace of mind to people rebuilding their lives. I appreciate Commissioner Lara for sponsoring these important changes.”
Consumers also have the following new protections under Commissioner-sponsored AB 2756, which was also signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, authored by now-Senator Monique Limón and Assembly Member Richard Bloom, and received no opposition:
- Insurance companies must inform consumers in writing if the policyholder purchases a policy that does not cover the peril of fire or if the insurance company removes the peril of fire when the policy is renewed — which could leave the policyholder unprotected from a wildfire. Following recent fires, the Department of Insurance heard from consumers who thought they had coverage for fire, only to learn that their insurance did not cover this loss.
- Residential fire policies that provide dwelling structure coverage will be required to include a minimum of 10% of primary dwelling limits as an additional amount available to help consumers rebuild resiliently with upgraded building codes such as fire sprinklers and solar panels.
“The costs of rebuilding a home can sometimes be astronomical. That is why I authored AB 2756 – homeowners must know that they have the right amount of coverage to begin to rebuild their lives after a wildfire,” said Senator Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), joint author of AB 2756. “Protecting consumers and providing transparent insurance information is the right thing to do as California continues facing wildfires and works towards reducing risks. I am pleased to see the implementation of this law and its impact on protecting the most at risk.”
“Record wildfire losses mean that it is more important than ever that consumers throughout California have a clear, transparent understanding of their insurance policies,” said Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), joint author of AB 2756. “My team and I are proud to have played a role in the passage of last year’s AB 2756, which protects consumers from questionable insurance practices while also helping consumers and homeowners build back resiliently. As climate change worsens and our wildfires worsen, preparation for wildfires and fire resiliency are imperative.”
“An insurance policy is a contract – and my goal is to make sure insurance companies are holding up their end of the deal in the wake of a disaster so survivors get the benefits they deserve,” continued Commissioner Lara. “We want wildfire surviors to recover and rebuild as quickly as possible. We will continue to listen to the needs of California consumers and I will continue to work with the Legislature and Governor to act on their concerns.”
The Department of Insurance has recovered more than $200 million for wildfires survivors in 2019 and 2020 through our investigation of consumer complaints and market conduct exams.
Wildfire survivors can contact the Department of Insurance for help with insurance claims or policy questions at 800-927-4357 (HELP) and through online chat at insurance.ca.gov.
- Read more details about these new protections in Commissioner Lara’s notice to insurance companies: Significant California Laws Effective as of the Date of this Notice Pertaining to Residential Property Insurance Policies, including those related to a Declared State of Emergency (April 2, 2021)
- Commissioner Lara also urges all Californians in wildfire risk areas to take steps to prepare for a possible wildfire including:
- Review their current insurance policies to evaluate whether they have adequate coverage needed to rebuild a home to the same standard it is now or to relocate their home somewhere else.
- Do a home inventory – which can be as simple as using a cell phone to photograph the most valuable items, such as jewelry, musical instruments, and computers. Review our home inventory guide.
- Create a wildfire action plan and an emergency kit. Check out CAL FIRE resources here.
- Strengthen a home with mitigation by home-hardening the property and creating defensible space. Learn more at CAL FIRE’s ReadyforWildfire.org website.