To help protect homes against wildfires as they threaten more populated areas, insurers are teaming up with specialists and offering free prevention and loss-minimization services for their policyholders.
- With wildfires raging in the Western U.S., some major insurers are teaming with wildfire prevention and mitigation services to help their policyholders.
- These services are typically free to the homeowner.
- Assistance can include preventative measures before wildfire strikes and after-the-fact help if it does.
- New technology is also helping homeowners identify fire risks and remedy them before the worst happens.
Spreading Like Wildfire
Wildfire damage is an enormous and ever-growing threat in the U.S. More than 17,000 structures—at least half of them residences—burned in wildfires in 2020, primarily in California. That year nearly 59,000 wildfires consumed 10.1 million acres, the second-highest acreage affected in a single year since 1960 and more than twice the average annual acreage that burned in the 1990s.
Currently, some 2 million homes in California alone are considered to be at high risk of wildfire, "a peril that is advancing on areas where we had not seen it," State Farm stated in press release.
What Insurers Are Doing to Help
State Farm is one of a number of major insurers that are stepping up to help. The Bloomington, Ill.-based insurance giant announced in May that it would offer a wildfire response endorsement at no cost to policyholders in affected areas, in partnership with a vendor experienced in risk mitigation. The vendor, Wildfire Defense Systems (WDS) of Bozeman, Mont., saved more than 70 homes in a 2020 pilot program in Colorado and Oregon, State Farm noted.
State Farm's service area for its WDS offering includes California, Arizona, and Washington, as well as Colorado and Oregon.
"Because we feel this expansion of service is such an important benefit, customers cannot opt out of this service," State Farm spokesman Kevin Gamble said in an email, adding that it "is automatically included at no additional cost." However, the new service is not meant to replace existing wildfire preparation efforts, which customers in wildfire-prone areas are advised to continue.
Similarly, Farmers Insurance Group kicked off a pilot program in mid-July 2021 to last through the end of the year, offering WDS's services to potentially affected homeowners in California. The no-cost benefit is available to more than 900,000 Farmers policyholders in the state, according to Jeff Thomas, the company's personal lines underwriting manager.
Farmers Smart Plan Home and Farmers Next Generation customers in California are automatically enrolled in the WDS pilot program, but they can choose to opt-out at any time before the program concludes on Dec. 31 by contacting their agent.
Both Liberty Mutual Group and Chubb have offered WDS services to homeowners for some time. Liberty Mutual and its Safeco Insurance division provide wildfire protection to customers in 15 fire-vulnerable states, utilizing the WDS defense system since 2010, the company said in an email.
The WDS protection kicks in when the company is notified of a fire, and a team should be onsite within 24 hours, State Farm says. The company's fire-suppression activities can include clearing brush and combustibles away from policyholders' homes; removing flammable debris from the roof and exterior; covering vents to prevent embers from entering; setting up temporary sprinkler systems; removing pine needles from roofs; and active fire and ember extinguishing, according to insurers that contract with the company.
(Indeed, flying embers are responsible for the destruction of most homes during a wildfire, according to California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection. Embers can reach homes a mile away from the fire itself.)
After a fire, WDS returns to help with clean-up efforts.
Other Help in the Fight Against Fires
While WDS is a leader in this field, it is not the only company that insurers are calling on for help. For example, State Farm is also working with Whisker Labs to promote Ting, a plug-in device and app that can alert homeowners to electrical problems that could lead to a home fire and, in turn, spark a wildfire.
The insurer also participated in the development of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety's Wildfire Ready app, which uses "augmented reality" to assist homeowners in identifying and then mitigating wildfire risk, basically by pointing their smartphone at their house. The app reveals the home's vulnerable areas for the ignition or spread of wildfire, according to the company, and suggests do-it-yourself projects and tips for remedying the problem.