Hoping to stem or reduce the skyrocketing insurance rates some homeowners are facing at Lake Berryessa, Napa County Fire Chief Scott Upton pushed his preferred solution to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday — building two new fire stations.
Residents of the Berryessa Estates and Berryessa Highlands communities have been seeing their homeowners insurance rates jump drastically — some doubling within a year — or having their insurance dropped altogether.
The problem, according to Napa County officials, is that each community sits farther than five miles from the nearest fire station, leading to a lesser rating from a company, ISO, that rates communities for their levels of fire protection.
The Board of Supervisors directed Upton to continue pursuing new fire stations in the Estates and the Highlands, although it amounted to verbal support. The board has yet to commit any funding to the new stations.
Upton told the Board of Supervisors that in the last five years, his agency has responded to 10 structure fire calls in areas outside a 5-mile perimeter from the nearest fire station. With 16,347 total calls coming in that period, those fire calls amount to .0007 percent of the call volume, Upton said. He said the fires caused less than $250,000 damage.
Still, Upton said ISO’s fire insurance ratings are set on different standards — physical distance from the fire station and other steps the fire department takes, the availability and strength of the water supply, and the reliability of the dispatch system.
He urged the supervisors to pursue building two additional small fire stations in the Estates and the Highlands, which will require procuring land near the Estates from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and having the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sign off. Costs for the stations would likely be covered from the county’s fire fund.
Upton said the Estates and the Highlands are served by volunteer fire departments based in Pope Valley and in Capell Valley, respectively.
“They have good fire departments but it’s just distance,” Upton said. “We should be able to meet those requirements from ISO if we decide to go that way.”
But, he cautioned that he couldn’t promise adding stations would automatically mean a change in ISO’s ratings.
“I cannot guarantee that,” Upton said. “This is a for-profit enterprise. Their business models dictate how they charge for insurance.”
Supervisor Keith Caldwell, a former fire chief in American Canyon, said governments can throw money at ISO ratings, either by adding staff and apparatus, or by hiring career firefighters versus relying on volunteers, without achieving success in improving them.
He noted that decades ago, former members of the Board of Supervisors committed county resources toward providing fire protection in the unincorporated area, and he viewed the new stations as an extension of that commitment.
With regards to the Highlands and the Estates, the county and the residents have committed to paying for upgrades to the water systems in those communities, improving their ability to fight fires at the same time.
“It’s what the residents expect,” Caldwell said. “We don’t install 6- or 8-inch mains so someone can flush their toilets. We’ve made investments on that side. We now need to make the investments to create the fire stations for that.”
Berryessa Estates residents John Hallman and Gail Bickett also encouraged the supervisors to provide funding to build the stations.
Bickett said she pays $1,000 annually for homeowners insurance, as well as $600 for water and $300 for electricity. Other residents have it worse, she told the supervisors.
One woman living in the Estates has seen her homeowners insurance jump from $1,000 each year to $2,600. Despite writing letters to the California Department of Insurance, Bickett said she’s found no help from the state government in trying to reduce those increases.
“All the letter writing I did and it was like, ‘You’ve got what you’ve got,’” Bickett said. “We do need a fire house. We do need to take the next step.”
Hallman said the Estates is a Firewise community, as is the Highlands. The Estates has received grants to do brush clearing in the areas surrounding the community, allowing it to create up to 2,000 feet of defensible space in some outlying areas, he said.
“This is a very important subject,” Hallman said. “We have no guarantees on the insurance, but we have a strong probability it will help. I think it’s a really good thing for the community.”