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Orinda and MOFD say they have a wildfire prevention plan.  The insurance industry does not believe it.  Up to half of Orinda's home insurance policies have been cancelled.  Orinda needs a Plan B.


Orindans have known for years that there is a risk for wildfire in Orinda.


* In 1991, the Oakland Hills (Tunnel) Fire destroyed 3,300 homes, killed 25 souls.  The smoke could be seen from Orinda.  There are many "refugees" from the devastated area living in Orinda, and even more Orindans know one or more people who fled the fire and lost their homes.

* In 2017, the area in and around Santa Rosa was devastated by the first in a series of "global warming" fires.  22 people died and over 5,000 homes were burned.

* In 2018, Paradise was essentially destroyed with over 14,000 dwellings burned and 85 lives lost.

* In the summer of 2020 Orinda was enveloped by choking smoke, 100 degree temperatures and lost power for days.


The result from this is that when surveyed in February 2020 on what their priorities were for a proposed 1% supplemental sales tax, Orindans responded wildfire prevention, 2:1 over the alternative, road and storm drain maintenance. 


At the time, even though Orinda property taxes were funding the fire protection district, MOFD, with $17 million, over $3 million more than it cost the district to provide service to Orinda, the district had no wildfire prevention program.


When the city put the 1% sales tax (Measure R) on the November 2020 ballot, it was advertised as an essential service tax stressing wildfire prevention but including road and storm drain maintenance.  


The tax, requiring only a simple majority because it was technically a "general" tax that the city can use for any purpose, passed with 59% approving.  It's spending to be overseen by a citizen committee, the SSTOC (Supplemental Sales Tax Oversight Commission).  At its first meeting (March 2021), the focus of tax was reiterated by the mayor who told the new commissioners: "that the bulk of the sales tax measure funds for the next several years is expected to be devoted to the development and implementation of fire prevention and disaster preparedness plans".  However, at the time, no one on the commission or on the city staff had any expertise in wildfire prevention.


After a year, while the city hired no expert in wildfire prevention to assist it in preparing a plan, John Radke, 30-year resident of Orinda and professor at UC Berkeley who has researched and taught wildfire modeling and prevention for three decades, addressed the commission.  Professor Radke described to the commissioners the basics of wildfire modeling and prevention.  In July, in conjunction with UC's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management (CCRM), he presented a 30-page proposal to create a wildfire risk modeling plan which would identify the highest risk areas requiring vegetation mitigation to reduce the risk plus periodic reassessment to maintain a reduced risk; in August the SSTOC voted to present the $600,000 proposal (two months of Measure R revenue) to the city council; which they did in October, 2022.


However, when the proposal was made to the council, City Manager David Biggs (who had no expertise in wildfire prevention) "advised" the council to reject the proposal because the city had other priorities for the $600,000.  The council deferred judgement and to date, May 2024, has still not reviewed its earlier deferral.  In the meantime, while the SSTOC has continued to focus on wildfire prevention, the council, at the advice of the city staff (which includes public works professionals but no one with wildfire prevention expertise) has allocated $10.8 million of Measure R revenue for road and storm drain maintenance while only $3 million for fuel mitigation.


The city's, and the fire district's, focus for wildfire prevention has been to educate property owners on how to provide defensible space around their homes, at their own expense (even though they are paying millions in taxes which they had been led to believe was for this task).  The fire district has passed fire code specifying the defensible space requirements and the district does inspections, but only from the street when the vast majority of "the problem" is behind homes between properties (no man's land).  There is still no fire risk modeling, as proposed by CCRM, or monitoring.


It has now (May 2024) been four years since the residents of Orinda told the city that wildfire prevention was their number one, by a large margin, priority and three years since they started paying $4 million a year in a supplemental sales tax to fund that priority (not to mention over-funding the fire district with another $4 million a year).  So where are they?


Orinda's number one home casualty insurer, State Farm, which insures 40% of Orinda's homes, announced in March that it was canceling 55% of it policies (25% of Orinda's homes) because of excess wildfire risk.  Other insurers (Farmers, Travelers, AAA) are following suit (although to what extent is unknown).  25%, up to 50% of Orinda's homeowners are looking for new policies and it appears that no company, even if they are not cancelling, is writing new policies.


What are Orindan's doing?  The only option appears to be the insurer-of-last-resort, the state's FAIR plan.  This plan is only for fire insurance, so it requires an additional private "wraparound" policy for all-risk and liability.  One resident reported that these two policies were going to increase his annual insurance cost three times, $9,000 from $4,000 to $13,000. If half of Orinda suffers this fate, 3,500 homes, the total additional insurance cost for all of Orinda could be $32 million a year.


Why is this happening now?  There are multiple reasons.  (1) The insurance companies don't really understand the risk (no one is modeling it). (2) The state insurance commission imposes rates that are probably too low and it won't allow the companies to base rates on wildfire risk models (the only state with this restriction). (3) If the risk is not sustainable, or if the insurers can't ascertain if it is sustainable or not, why is State Farm "only" cancelling 55% of the policies and not all policies?  Because it sells a lot more insurance than just homeowners.  So, State Farm is discontinuing its highest dollar-risk homes (high replacement value) while retaining the lower cost homes, hoping to retain all of their insurance.


On the surface, it appears that this is a state problem and a single community, like Orinda, cannot segregate itself.  But is that true?  What if the city had accepted the CCRM proposal, by now the risk profile for each neighborhood would have been determined.  Then, if the city had been dedicating its $4 million per year of Measure R funds (and maybe an additional $4 million from MOFD) for vegetation mitigation, the insurance companies might have agreed that Orinda was taking action and limited or deferred action.  


It has been estimated that all of Orinda could be "cleaned up" for $12 million and the "common space" between properties maintained for $2 million a year.  We have the resources to do that.  If we start implementing an aggressive plan of modeling, mitigation and periodic monitoring (re-examining and modeling), maybe State Farm and the other insurers would view Orinda as a model community and give 94563 a "pass" to see how the experiment went in reducing risk to levels that even current rates would consider sustainable. 


It is too late to turn that clock back (no thanks to City Manager Biggs and the public works staff justifying spending most of Measure R funds to maintain the best roads in the Bay Area which may be all that is left of Orinda if there is a major wildfire).  But it is not too late to start measuring risk, targeting high risk areas, and commencing with publicly-funded fuel mitigation.  The "viability" of FAIR plan coverage has been questioned in the event of a major disaster.  We should do everything we can to prevent that major disaster from occurring in Orinda.

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