Large houses nestled in tree-covered hills
Insurance companies are declining to renew or write new policies in the fire-prone Oakland hills and other parts of the state. Credit: Amir Aziz

State Farm’s announcement in June that it will no longer write new home insurance policies in California is only the latest example of prominent insurers recoiling from wildfire risk in the state. It’s a phenomenon that East Bay hills residents are all too familiar with; there have been countless cases of non-renewals and rate hikes over the past several years.

On Wednesday, City Councilmember Janani Ramachandran held a virtual town hall with staff from the California Department of Insurance, along with the Oakland Firesafe Council, to discuss the vexing insurance policy problem and review wildfire prevention steps residents can take. 

Check out our wildfire safety guide

The threat of catastrophic wildfire is nothing new in the Oakland Hills. But hotter, drier weather linked to climate change means fires are more common and more destructive.

Oakland Wildfire Guide

Ramachandran represents District 4, which along with District 1, is home to Oakland’s most fire-prone hilly neighborhoods like Montclair, Merriewood, and Piedmont Pines. 

“Fires are spreading faster and burning hotter than fires only a decade ago,” said Ken Benson, president of the Oakland Firesafe Council. “We’re seeing higher average daily temperatures and lower humidity.”

While some Oakland residents are all too familiar with this danger, having survived the 1991 East Bay hills fire, “we also have new residents to District 4, folks who are very unaware of the risks,” Ramachandran said. 

The councilmember recently traveled to Sacramento to meet with Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara after hearing from constituents about canceled home insurance policies, and Lara suggested the town hall, Ramachandran said. 

“We can’t make any company write any policy for anyone in any place,” said Mary Beth Bykowsky, a state Department of Insurance outreach analyst, at Wednesday’s event. “It’s a conundrum.” 

The department has an insurance finder tool, where users can look for companies writing policies in high-risk areas. Bykowsky also recommended calling up companies based in other cities or states, as they might want to spread their risk and be willing to insure an Oakland home. 

A new regulation adopted by the agency in 2022, called Safer from Wildfires, directs insurance companies to provide discounts to customers who take steps to reduce risk at their property, from upgrading their windows to clearing vegetation to joining neighborhood fire-prevention efforts. The regulation also requires companies to provide customers with the “wildfire risk score” they use to determine their insurance rates and allows residents to appeal the score.

Another step that could potentially earn you a discount or help you retain your policy—or simply protect your property and neighborhood from wildfire damage—is establishing a Firewise USA site, speakers on Wednesday said. The national designation refers to households that band together in small groups, assess their collective fire risk, and come up with a mitigation plan they’ll carry out over the next three years. 

While there are some 700 of these sites in California, only two are in Oakland, said Joelle Fraser, who heads up the Oakland Firesafe Council’s support for these groups. Others are in the process of establishing, but “we should have many more by now,” she said at the event. Nearby fire-prone places like Berkeley and Marin County have many more. 

Oakland’s Firesafe Council, which launched in 2014, offers a heap of resources and programs around wildfire risk reduction and preparedness. The group also advocates for policies it believes will better position Oakland to withstand worsening fire seasons.

“In California, it’s not ‘if,’ it’s ‘when,’” warned Fraser.

Doug Mosher, Firesafe Council board member, said the group would like the city to hold evacuation drills, simulating the process of fleeing a fire. People in the hills “have to know as many routes as possible,” including how to exit on foot, since it’s impossible to predict where a downed tree will prevent escape or which roads emergency vehicles will need to park on.

Mosher noted that not everyone in Oakland can hear the city’s siren warning system, which is tested on the first Wednesday of each month. He called the equipment “outdated.”

“We really hope Oakland sometime soon will implement newer, more modern, and more effective speakers that can give commands,” he said, saying Berkeley is doing this. But, “when in doubt, get out—don’t wait to be told.” 

Residents can also sign up for AC Alerts, the county-wide notification system for all sorts of emergencies.

The Firesafe Council is one of the groups advocating for a regional “MOU,” or agreement, between local government agencies in the fire-hazard areas of Alameda County and West Contra Costa County to collaborate on fire prevention, sharing resources and practices. For example, Oakland has a strong annual inspection program for fire-prone properties, which other agencies could learn from, Benson said.

The Oakland City Council has signaled early support for a regional effort, passing a resolution in 2021 authorizing the city to participate in developing the agreement, which was initially proposed as a new joint powers agency.

Ramachandran said Oakland also has an inter-departmental working group developing a vegetation management plan for the city.

Bykowsky, from the state insurance department, said individual residents have to do what they can to harden their homes, putting themselves in a better position to find insurance companies willing to issue policies.

“We are in different times right now, and we all have to be a little responsible,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.