How to Properly Protect Your Home from Wild Fire in Marin County

Protecting your property from the risk of wildfire is more complicated than you may think:

  • Simple Ideas
  • Actionable Considerations
  • & the Risk Management Component

Act now to protect you and your family.   Please do not regret your inaction at a later time.

Protect your property from wild fire

The time has come for this post.  Far enough after the tremendous and horrible wildfires that burned down much of Napa and Sonoma counties in 2017.   Some may say that an article about how to protect your property so soon after a major tragedy is self serving for an insurance agent.  I do not care.  The threat from this natural peril is not going away, in fact

How to Properly Protect Your Home from Wild Fire in Marin County

During the past several years, it has become fairly obvious to all consumers in the North Bay that a the threat from wildfire is a large risk to all of our homes.  Not just the properties far off in the hills.  Wild fires, loosely defined are fires started either naturally, by arson, or by accident on wild land. These fires have grown in size and strength.  There are a number of factors that have contributed to this.

According to ABC News, the Tubbs Fires of 2017 in Sonoma was the largest fire in California State History.  The second largest wildfire in state history was the Oakland Hills fire all the way back from 1991.  The San Diego Cedar Fire of 2003 is the third largest.  Five of the ten largest wildfires in this state have happened in the last eleven years.

The time to protect from wildfire is now.

Factors that Have Increased the Wildfire Risk in Marin County:

WUI Interface:  Ever increasing homes in America are being built right next to wildlands.  This is increasing the risk of wildfires spreading into suburban areas.   This WUI interface played a key role in the fires in Santa Rosa as a wildfire actually crossed over highway 101.

Overall Size and Ferocity of Wildfires in General:  There is so much evidence out there that has shown that fire storms are growing larger and more devastating.  What used to be considered a large wildfire is now considered a medium sized one.

Potential Lack of Funding to Stop Fires:   The growth of funding to fight wildfires probably has not kept pace with the growth of the actual fires themselves.

How to Full Protect your Home from Wildfire:

It is impossible to fully protect your home from wildfire.  There is just nothing that you can do that will completely solve the wild fire danger risk.  There are however several things that you can do to lower the wild fire risk and diminish damage to your property.   In this article we will discuss some of the preventative things that can be done to protect your home.  We will also discuss the insurance side.  How to shop and buy the correct type of home insurance policy that will do their utmost to protect your abode from danger.

How to Protect your Home from Wildfire:

A simple three step process for protecting your home from wildfire includes the following:  Selecting a property/home, Fortifying your existing property, and insuring the home in the best manner possible.

  • Carefully Select your home and property
  • Fortify your property externally and internally
  • Leverage the proper Risk Management Tools, AKA Home Insurance

Home and Property Considerations when Purchasing:

If you already own a home, than this category may seem somewhat pointless.  However do not skip over this section – it contains very important details.

When selecting a property for purchase it is imperative that you communicate with your current insurance agent or insurance company to see if they are able to write a policy in a given area.   The cost difference between what preferred carriers are able to write vs non standard home insurers will cost you can be a factor or two, three, or possibly four times and more.  In other words buying a hard to write home owners insurance policy could cost you 400% of what another similar property will cost you.

The moment that you are serious about a property and your current home insurance agent makes it sound like they can not do it: Stop what you are doing.  Find an insurance broker that writes these types of policies and start getting quotes.

The Types of Homes that Insurance Companies Don’t Like

The focus on this article is on wildfire, so we will stick to this subject.  However as a note there are all sorts of non wildfire reasons that some insurance companies will decline you such as the presences of vicious dogs or having too many past insurance claims.

From a wildfire consideration there are two sub areas to be concerned with:   The Area and the House.

Most insurers use something called a wildfire score.   A wildfire score is a rating of the susceptibility of wildfire in a given neighborhood.   The rating that is produced from these maps takes several geographic and lumber considerations into account.  Some of the precise considerations include:

The Quantity of Fuel:  How Much lumber of brush can burn.

The Slope of the Area:  Hillsides sometimes are considered worse.

The Type of Fuel:  Certain types of wood such as Eucaplies are worse than others.

The proximity of all of this fuel and slope to your property.

All of this (and more) produce a crude tool of wildfire risk.  It is without question more accurate than what was used just twenty years ago, but it is not perfect.  Insurers though are changing and developing new improved software tools to properly asses wildfire risk.

The are build characteristics of homes that make your home a more dangerous property to insure from wildfire.  Think of it this way, if a wildfire came to your home, how long can your home protect itself before it becomes engulfed in flames.

The preponderance of brush on the property (or in very close proximity) is of chief importance. Although not technically a build characters of the home, it is a build characteristic of the land.   Most insurers want about 100 or 150 feet of clearance.  You will sometimes see this as 100 yards.

Insurance companies hate certain types of roofs.  I realize that hate may be a strong word, but old dried wood shake shingles are no match for a forest fire.   Roofs that are not complete and that do not fully protect the home are usually also an automatic decline.

Home Foundations that are Open Pier in nature are also not preferred.  An open pier home is basically a home on stilts.  Even if those stilts are just two feet height.  This is typically because burning embers can get below the house and start a fire underneath it structure.  Insurance companies prefer that the piers be closed.

Certain types of siding ‘may’ be an issue.   Homes that contain non flammable or sealed siding is best.

In general, most home insurers will prefer a home centrally monitored fire alarm and sometimes a full internal sprinkler system.

How to Fortify your Home:

I am by no means an expert on this property.  In general most of our suggestions were taken from public reliable resources, such as and .

The Neighborhood:

Beyond your property line and the 100 yard perimeter line there are a few things that you may be able to do to protect the entire area and your property.  Think of it this way, if your neighbors home is less likely to catch fire, than your home is less likely as well.

One consideration is in getting all of the houses in a given area inspected either from the local fire department.   Ask your fire department about overhanging trees over road ways.

If you live near a Marin county Open Space, or California State Park, or Federal National Park attend public meeting and ask them about the preventative fire measures they are taking in your area.

Lastly consider banding together to get your area certified as a Fire Wise community.

Your Immediate Property:

The area just outside of your home is the one area that most people imagine when you talk about wildfire protection.

Debris: The very first thing to do is to clean up old, dead debris.   Needles, Leaves, Garage – all of this stuff burns pretty easily.  Clean up all of this stuff.

Over Hanging Trees:  This is a requirement for all home for more reasons than just wildfire risk. Trees that hang over your home create all sorts of issues with rodents, debris, water run off, and limb issues.  They also create a fire danger.

Dead Trees:  Cut down all dead trees and bushes on the property.  Obviously dead trees are a tremendous fire hazard.

Immediate Proximity Trees:  The trees that are right up next to the house need tremendous care.   They should be well shaped and pruned.   If you have trees that are more susceptible to burning you should consider cutting them down and removing their stumps.   Bamboo is an example of a type of plant that should be avoided next to your house.

Other Trees on the Property:   Other trees that are on your property should be cared and ‘limbed’ as well.  An old rule of thumb is to trim trees up about a third of the height.  In other words, remove all limbs on the bottom third of a tree.

Plants and Trees to Avoid in Wildfire Areas:  This is not a complete list, rather a sample.   In my opinion Eucalyptus trees are one of the worst ones.  Juniper, Arborvitae, and Cypress and of course bamboo are all not preferred.  Other species to try and avoid include: Acacia, Black Sage, California Bay, Buckwheat, Greasewood, Chaparrel, Coyote Brush, Firs, French Broom, Hemlock, Manzanita, Pines, Scotch Broom, Spruces, and Yew.  

Also Palm trees have a habit of having dead limbs on them and it is recommended that these be cleaned up.

The Interior of your Home:

The inside of your home is probably where you can do the least to protect your home from a wild-fire.. However these changes are no insignificant.   The first and most obvious thing to do is to have multiple Fire (and Carbon Monoxide) Detectors in your home.  I personally would suggest one in each room where people sleep and in the common areas and kitchen.

Second, better yet, get a centrally monitored fire alarm, that connects to a monitoring company.  They can they dispatch a call to 911.  Although this service is not free, it can partially be paid for by a small discount on your home insurance.

Third, WUI compliant windows and doors.   Certain types of windows can last longer before imploding during a fire storm.  Upgrading to and past current code can make a big difference.

Fourth, an internal fire sprinkler system may stop a fire once it starts within your home.  Of course, once a fire gets going, even an fully functional interior sprinkler system may not work.

Muir Beach unincorporated community in Marin County, California, USA.

Insuring your Marin County Home

There are other consideration of things that you can do, but most of the other options are really not all that helpful.  One of them is to get involved with legislation or work with your community to get you become qualified as a fire wise community.   Our list is intended to be based on things that homeowners can do themselves.

Let me be perfectly clear – All Insurance is Not the Same.   There are lots of good places to save money on insurance, but home insurance in Marin county is probably not one of them.  Loosely speaking you can either pay a low yearly premium for insurance or pay for insurance that will fully replace your home once it burns down.   It will cost you a lot more money to fully insure your home for a complete rebuild after a widespread wildfire.   There is ample evidence to support my claim here.

According to the non profit United Policy Holders – 66% of insureds “reported that their homes were underinsured by an average of $317,000.”  66%!  That means that only 34% believe that they had adequate insurance coverage.   The other really scary part of this statistic is that insureds believe that they were underinsured in Santa Rosa by $317,000.  How much do you think that would be in Marin County, where building costs are significantly more? 

The who, the why, and the how of all of this are a bit beyond the scope of this article.   However let me give you a brief explanation.

Home insurance policies are written with a Coverage A amount with the addition of s few endorsements that can increase the overall rebuild coverage amount.  The primary endorsement to be aware of is the Extended Rebuild Endorsement.   The extended rebuild endorsement was created to give insureds a bit more insurance in case costs sky rocketed for numerous reasons such as Demand Surge.  Simply put demand surge is when costs go up because lots of homes are destroyed. Everything, lumber, copper, transportation, men, etc will cost you more.  The typical standard home insurance policy carries just 25% extended rebuild coverage in California.

Standard Home Insurers:

  • 25% Extended Rebuild Endorsement
  • 10% Building Ordinance & Law
  • Questionable Property Appraisal
  • thumbs-o-downLimited Loss of Use

Affluent Home Insurers:

  • 100% Extended Rebuild Endorsement
  • 100% Building Ordinance & Law
  • Inspected & Appraised
  • thumbs-o-upGenerally Unlimited Loss of Use

Marindependent Insurance Services

Another important endorsement is called Building Ordinance and Law.   This endorsement is typically more useful if you suffer a partial loss of your home.  The Building Ordinance and Law definition is not very helpful to consumers, an example is better.  If your home suffers a partial loss, the code and inspection people in your county or town may require you to make additional changes to your home to bring the entire or partial home up to current code.   Your entire plumbing or electrical system may need to be replaced just from one small kitchen fire.  This small kitchen fire may only cost $30,000 to fix, but changing out your plumbing and electrical may cost you $300,000.   To add insult to injury some towns require that when about 50% of your home in destroyed, you will need to replace the entire home.  Both of the added costs from both examples would likely have to be covered by the Building Ordinance and Law coverage.   The typical standard home insurance policy carries just 10% building and ordinance law coverage.

So how do the more expensive better insurance policies protect your home with these endorsements?   Generalizing here, because their about 8 to 10 of these companies in California.  These companies increase the extended rebuild endorsement to 100%.   100%!   The will double the Coverage A of your dwelling.

For building ordinance and law – they do the same they will double your building ordinance and law to 100% of the Coverage A dwelling.

There are other things that these so called Affluent Home Insurance carriers will do to assist in this the loss.   The normal home insurance policy will list a specific quantity of dollars for Loss of Use Coverage.  This is coverage to pay for hotel rooms, meals, laundry services, and eventually a short term or even long term house to rent.  A better version of Loss of Use Coverage will pay in a quantity of time, such as 12 or 24 months.  This is a great step in the right direction.

A few of the very best carriers out there will write home insurance with Loss of Use as Unlimited.   This is the very best coverage that you can receive in this arena.

Wildfire danger in Marin County

Downtown Mill Valley – Time for a Wildfire?

But Wait there is More with Affluent Home Insurance:

If you are still on the fence about Affluent Home Insurance Products Know this – a few of these carriers hire their own private firefighting armies to potentially come and protect your home.  I say potentially because it may not be possible to get someone to your locale and hence there is no guarantee.  However there have been many news worthy saves from some of these home insurance carriers and their private fire fighting armies.

Premier Affluent Home Insurance Carriers also typically will do property appraisals to assess the correct value of the home.  I have little evidence of this, but much practical evidence of this.  These carriers will often require homes be covered at higher Coverage A valuations.  It is a bit difficult to tease out the factors that contribute to this precisely.  Certainly some of the people that own more expensive homes do have more exotic and hence expensive homes to rebuild.  But I do not believe that constitutes the entire difference.   I professionally believe that many standard home insurers are possibly underinsuring homes with coverage A generally because they are either unknowledgeable about local rebuild costs or to keep their premiums low.

There is much more that these affluent home insurers do, especially on the international coverages and on liability.  But these are not the focus of this article.

Conclusion for How to Protect your Home from Wildfire:

Please, protect your family and your property from the threat of wildfire.   Consider cutting down dead trees and removing flammable plants.  Water your lawn, Add an Alarm, and Upgrade  your home insurance.  Either ask your current insurer to add enhanced extended rebuild coverage amounts or switch to a carrier that will.