California, Wary of More Wildfires, Is Paying for Them Already
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California, Wary of More Wildfires, Is Paying for Them Already


CreditCreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

CLEARLAKE, Calif. — Two thousand homes lost and two-thirds of the land burned: The residents of Lake County, a sparsely populated area north of Napa Valley, understand better than most the devastating cost of wildfires in recent years.

Yet few people in Lake County, or in many other fire-prone parts of California, could have anticipated the millions they are now spending this summer on wildfires, even before the first big one ignites.

Insurance rates have soared in some of the riskiest places, and some insurers are refusing to renew policies. Lake County politicians are fretting over the more than $700,000 the county is spending to install backup power generators for the courthouse, sheriff’s department and other government buildings. The generators are necessary because the power company has announced that this year it will turn off the power when fire risk is high.

“It’s a lot of money for us, but I really feel we don’t have a choice,” said Dennis Darling, who owns a supermarket in the town of Clearlake and is paying $100,000 to install a generator. “Every year we have these hellacious fires.”

The arrival of the peak fire season in California — a time of uninterrupted sunshine, hot winds and crackling-dry vegetation — has the state on edge. At every level, people are scrambling to prepare, from top politicians and officials to ordinary residents of Lake County, a community of 64,000 people with incomes around half the California average.


CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill earlier this month to provide up to $21 billion in compensation for future wildfire victims. In March, he announced emergency measures to manage forests in vulnerable areas. Pacific Gas & Electric, the electricity utility, has launched a fleet of drones to check aging power lines, which caused a number of recent fires, including the inferno that engulfed the town of Paradise, killing 85 people. Seven planes operated by the company are flying across the northern half of the state every day to look for possible fires.

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“I think we can say with assurance that we are safer today than we were yesterday,” said Bill Johnson, the chief executive officer of Pacific Gas & Electric, in an interview. “But this risk exists and can’t be eliminated.”

Made worse by climate change, wildfires are adding a mounting financial burden in California, a state where taxes are already high and housing costs exorbitant.

To the north, Oregon and Washington have had fewer wildfires so far this summer than were feared, but firefighters in the Northwest have shifted their attention to Alaska, where more than 900,000 acres have burned.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which already charges among the highest electricity rates in the country, is requesting that regulators approve an additional charge to customers of $2 billion over the next three years to help pay for wildfire safety improvements and other costs.

This is separate from the compensation fund approved last week, which includes more than $10 billion in costs to be borne by customers in the form of a levy on electricity bills for the next decade and a half.

And none of this will help pay the tens of billions of dollars in liabilities the company has for past fires where its equipment was involved.

So far this year, far fewer acres have burned in California compared with the same period last year. But firefighters are still worried.

“All this stuff burned, but it’s ready to burn again,” said William Sapeta, the chief of the Lake County Fire Protection District.

On a tour of vulnerable areas, where a light breeze carried the smoky odor of previous years’ fires, Chief Sapeta pointed to the overgrown grass covering the hillsides after a winter of generous rains.

He said residents had become hypervigilant, calling 911 when dust rises up from nearby quarries or when they smell what turns out to be their neighbors’ barbecue.

“There’s a lot of P.T.S.D,” Chief Sapeta said. “People call when they see any smoke whatsoever.”

Companies that study fire risk, like ImageCat or CoreLogic, estimate that one in 14 buildings in the state are at high or extreme risk of fire.


CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

“All of the factors that contributed to previous fires are still there,” said Tom Jeffery, a specialist with CoreLogic. “There’s no reason to think that we can’t replicate or — I hate to say this — we could potentially exceed what we saw in the past fires.”

David McGiffert, a resident of Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles, received notice from his insurance company several weeks ago that his homeowner’s policy would not be renewed because of wildfire risk.

Mr. McGiffert, a 77-year-old retiree, said he had been insured by the company, Allstate, since 1997 and had never filed a claim related to his home, which is not far from the area burned in last year’s devastating Woolsey Fire.

“I don’t have any idea what we’re going to do,” Mr. McGiffert said. “Our house is our equity. It’s what we have to leave our children.”

Other insurance companies want five times the $1,800 a year he currently pays, Mr. McGiffert said.

California offers a plan of last resort, but with limited coverage.

The California Department of I

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