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You Live In A Fire Zone?
How about you pay, not us? As Lena commented the other day on this entry:

Year after goddamn year, fires in the Malibu hills, followed by endless human interest stories on public radio about the heirlooms that people leave behind as they flee. That's entertainment? No, that's vomitous.

Meanwhile, Allstate won't even do business in California anymore. The entire fucking state's been redlined.

And yes, the "you pay" goes for any other areas prone to national disasters.

Insurance premium too high? Can't afford a private company to foam your roof when the fires come? Unable or unwilling to buy yourself an auxiliary water tank and a 1,000-foot firehose? Unable or unwilling to pay private firefighters to defend your property? Well, then you can't afford to live there, now can you?

Kirk Johnson and Jesse McKinley write in The New York Times about "Rethinking Fire Policy in the Tinderbox Zone":

The long-term battle is one that fire experts suggest cannot be won, even with the better building codes and evacuation plans that have become a staple of government here and across much of the West. As the events of this week illustrate — at least 480,000 acres burned, 1,575 residences destroyed and 7 people killed — the cycle roars on with higher stakes, greater risk, and the grim certainty that it will happen again.

The California state fire marshal, Kate Dargan, said discussions had begun at the highest levels of government on some of the toughest proposals: curtailing population growth on the wildland margins or a sweeping overhaul of how the public lands are managed for fire danger. But decisions are perhaps 5 to 10 years away because of the enormity and complexity of the task.

“In the meantime,” Ms. Dargan said, “we’ll have more people living out there, and if averages hold, we’ll have two more catastrophic incidents like this before the decisions get made.”

Many Californians say they want the best of both worlds — life in the danger zone and more fire protection — and are frustrated that they do not have it.

“I’m angry that we are in the same boat,” said Camie Pretzinger, who lost her Cedar Glen home to fire in 2003 and defied an evacuation order there this week. “Every time there’s a disaster,” Ms. Pretzinger said, “they have to reinvent the wheel.”

State and local governments are locked in an increasingly difficult battle with Mother Nature.

She's a mean old bitch, and if you can't pay the price for duking it out with her, there's a pretty simple answer: Decamp to Cleveland.

Posted by aalkon at October 28, 2007 10:42 AM


But how much of the U.S. isn't prone to natural disasters of one kind or another? I'm not suggesting people be stupid about it (building on known flood plains or not clearing brush from around your home) but heck, almost all of California is an earthquake zone. Wasn't there an earthquake in Ohio a few years back?

Posted by: deja pseu at October 28, 2007 6:36 AM

So I'm with deja pseu in the question.

While environmentally, not bulldozing our hills for luxo mansions would be great, I don't know what we do about our ice storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, ....

I think you're asking for trouble living in a fire zone, but I suspect the folks along the Hayward Fault and the other big faults in California are going to create a much greater and tragic disaster in terms of lives and economics.

I honestly don't know what the answer is. While I think we should certainly help New Orleans out, I don't know what sense it makes to build 6 - 9 feet below the river/sea level.

At this point, honestly, I think that's why we all have insurance. If Allstate wants to cherry pick, I say we revoke their license because they are not selling insurance as much as making the insurance pool more problematical for those insurers that will engage the problem.

Note to Allstate: it's called insurance, it's not called guaranteed profit, or guaranteed business model.

Posted by: jerry at October 28, 2007 7:12 AM

Regretfully (insert story about moveaway divorces) I live in an area where the residents would survive about 24 hours without the power of the country's largest nuclear power plant to cool their homes and pump the water we need for drinking, lawns, and golf courses. Luckily for everyone in the country, the nuke plant has got one of the worst safety records. There are certainly not enough roads for us to evacuate in a timely fashion if the plant meltsdown. (When the plant meltsdown or is attacked that is, (and right now, 2 of 3 reactors are down, one planned, one not planned).)

We are known for really big malls, and really big kids and really big meth addictions. (What else are you going to do as a kid in this part of the world in the summer when it is too hot to not go to the mall, and you don't have wheels. Go to the food zoo, eat, get high in the theaters.)

In this case, I think we have very nicely taken care of most of the issues concerning survivors for the rest of the country, but the rest of the country is not as "smart" as we have been.

Posted by: jerry at October 28, 2007 7:19 AM

Last one, promise.

I might let the insurers work with the developers work with the first responders to develop codes and standards. You want to live in the hills? Roads must be this wide, houses must have a setback of this much, roofs must be made of, and walls made of....

You want to build below river level? At least one floor and/or attic needs to be built above river level, there must be escape access in the ceiling and roof, the walls and foundations must be built like so....

Amy, do you have three days of food, water, and first aid? (You should, and frankly, the more water you can stock, the happier you'll be as you can afford to wash and bathe.)

Posted by: jerry at October 28, 2007 7:36 AM

Wow. There are a couple of really, really strange ideas here.

The first one is that an insurance company isn't supposed to make a profit. I guess you don't know this: an insurance company is not only regulated by the several states, its primary structure, in order to remain competitive, is set up to keep rates what the marker will tolerate while still meeting the needs of its customers who are victims of planned risks. An actuarial table predicts death and destruction and sets the odds of it happening, including the number of people to which it will happen. It cannot "protect" against loss in the first place; the best it can do is try to compensate you for loss per your contract. Read that thing, and you'll find a long list of what is NOT covered. Among those are the famous "acts of God". If you get hit by a meteorite, too bad. (Note that you are also being charged an anti-terrorism fee in many locations.)

It IS possible to obtain special insurance against rare occurrences or those not covered by the routine things most people get with their home mortgage. You have heard of Lloyd's of London; I can't imagine why you don't have a policy of theirs. Maybe you have never considered your risks. What about that obliges the insurance company to pay you?

And then, what do you think an insurance company does? Do you really think that a loss like those fires is a lower dollar amount than the company's entire assets? Do you really want to destroy the company, leaving its other customers nationwide in the lurch because you can't figure out when your house burns down everybody else's will, too?

Please note that re-building in the burned areas will be a huge risk from a different direction: the loss of ground cover and deep-rooted vegetation means that erosion and landslides are on the agenda now. No home in the area will have its previous value until the landscape is truly settled.


Jerry, I'm guessing you went for hyperbole. Of course, electric power is supplied from the national grid, to which individual generators sell power. If you turn that nuke plant off, you still have power; if the brownout risk is high, that will just make conservation mandatory.


Building standards are a matter of state and county zoning laws already. If you are influential enough, you can pay to be exempted. This is why development still continues on risky and environmentally sensitive barrier islands and near national forests.

Posted by: Radwaste at October 28, 2007 8:43 AM

I don't have a house in a flood zone, fire zone, ice storm zone, tornado zone, ... I don't have a house.

I understand that insurance companies are supposed to make a profit, and I never said they weren't. I said their profit is not guaranteed. Nothing in the constitution guarantees either a profit or a business model regardless of how much the lobbyists scream.

But insurance companies like Allstate are very lucky in ways the rest of us are not. Mortgage owners are required to purchase their products and as far as I know, not just anyone can start selling insurance. The barriers to entry are quite high.

I am confident that Allstate has the resources to hire the mathematicians necessary to figure out what the right insurance rates are, to restructure their risk and hedge against it, etc. And if they spend too much money on marketing or executive benefits, that's not my problem, that's their executives and their stockholders.

How is a fire in San Diego, a tornado in Oklahoma, an earthquake in Los Angeles, a flood in New Orleans, an ice storm in Virginia not a known and planned for risk? What is known is they are coming, what is not known is precisely who will be hit and to what extent.

How is that any more not a planned risk than your getting into a car accident?

Many people would love to be in Allstates position and many people would love to cherry pick the lowest risk homes to insure. Since Allstate has a limited monopoly, I see no reason why the state cannot legitimately ask them to ensure everyone appropriately or to give up or sell their license.

Near as I can tell taxi drivers are legally required to pick up all passengers, not just the ones that look low risk.

Turn off our nuke plant supplying our state and at least two other surrounding states, and you will have lots of dead people. Already in the summers, 20-30 people die every year due to the heat and having power cut off due to lack of funds or homelessness.

Posted by: jerry at October 28, 2007 9:57 AM

When the gigundous tsunami wipes out Santa Monica, we'll be sure to remember to withhold sympathy....

Posted by: Stu "El Ingles" Harris at October 28, 2007 10:00 AM

> how much of the U.S. isn't
> prone to natural disasters

Exactly. Consider this little freaky polyp of Kentucky:

Properly called an exclave, it's a demented political border created by the mondo New Madrid quake in the early 1800's. It's worth looking up "Kentucky Bend" on Wikipedia.

(Amy: Tell Gregg that a gifted mystery writer [cough] could do great things with that setting: ambiance of Hillbilly noir, ancient territorial disputes with corrupt law enforcement, unstable geography, etc., it's Chinatown with humidity. I'm seeing Johansson as a dangerously fertile, prematurely-bitter wife of a local power broker [Paul Giamatti as bondage-obsessed managing director of a nuclear plant on the fault line]. She's lost in mentholated Marlboro daydreams of escaping to Saint Louis to have sex with her black lover [Chiwetel Ejiofor as a quietly-passionate tax assessor] in the shadow of the arch, but he's a man tortured by knowledge of a terrible secret. John Cusack is the world-weary private dick who gets his nostril sliced during the investigation. [If you need to go younger, we can use Orlando Bloom and do fish-out-of-water.] Whatever, let's talk, I think you're gonna wanna get behind this one in a big way. Have your people call.)

Anyway. Development has always happened in areas that are at risk for terrible things, and it can't all be insured. But if the Big One hits LA tomorrow, I bet we'd get a lot more attention from the government than New Orleans got, because there are so many more beloved and powerful people here, and not just in terms of relative population... On the other hand, Kobe never recovered its preeminence as a port after the 1995 quake.

We're all fucked.

Posted by: Crid at October 28, 2007 10:08 AM

And yes, the "you pay" goes for any other areas prone to national disasters.

Can we redline the Capitol and White House? They've both been a disaster area for a good many years now--and the future doesn't look very bright.

Posted by: Cinderella Ferret at October 28, 2007 2:34 PM

Say what you want about insurance companies: they are limited. When they run out of money, you're done. Far too many people think that their insurance company cannot be stripped of cash by a natural disaster. Others think that if the company still exists after their escrow funds are gone a crime has occurred. I'm just pointing out that insurance isn't magic.

Did anyone notice that a good number of these houses were bought on notes now unfavorable as the interest rates climb?

Posted by: Radwaste at October 28, 2007 2:52 PM

I don't know what we do about our ice storms,

Sturdy roof, underground utilities, weeks worth of food on a shelf somewhere.


Storm Cellar.


See Tornadoes.


Building codes.


Don't build in the river valleys.

Posted by: ken at October 28, 2007 5:29 PM


Storm Cellar.


See Tornadoes.

Storm cellars aren't always an option. I live in Hurricane Alley, in a section that is above sea level, but has so much ground water that no one has a basement. In New Orleans, bodies have to be buried above ground because of the water content of the soil. Storm cellars suck in floods - and not all floods occur in river valleys. I should know - I definitely do not live in a valley, yet needed flood insurance to obtain a mortgage.

Posted by: marion at October 28, 2007 6:27 PM

One last piece here: take a look at . If your house catches fire today, no matter where you are, you might have difficulty finding a place to sleep no matter what your insurance company does. You should be ready.

Posted by: Radwaste at October 28, 2007 6:51 PM

Amy, do you have three days of food, water, and first aid? (You should, and frankly, the more water you can stock, the happier you'll be as you can afford to wash and bathe.)

I do, and you can order yours from

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 28, 2007 7:14 PM

Insurance companies cannot afford to insure structures built in high risk areas without raising the rates. (Ask Florida residents what's happened to their insurance premiums since the last two major hurricanes) Fine with me if they raise the rates, as long as it's only on people stubborn or stupid enough to live on a flood plain, directly on Miami beach, or in a forest that needs to burn ever few years in order to sustain itself. What I have a problem with is when EVERYONE has to share the cost of the stupid decisions of a few rich people. If the insurance rates those people would have to pay are too higth for them, let 'em make their own equally high monthly payments into personal accounts for just such an emergency. If disaster strikes, they're finacially prepared, if it doesn't, they come out ahead.

Posted by: Redblues at November 1, 2007 8:58 PM

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