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Insurers are dropping Salt Lakers in the foothills due to higher wildfire risks

The corner of St. Marys Way and Bonneville Drive in the East Bench neighborhood of Salt Lake City, June 21, 2024. Just beyond the neighborhood is the entrance to Emigration Canyon and the mountains that line the east side of the city.
Caroline Ballard
/
KUER
The corner of St. Marys Way and Bonneville Drive in the East Bench neighborhood of Salt Lake City, June 21, 2024.

Rachel Borup lives in the St. Mary’s neighborhood of Salt Lake City, near the base of Emigration Canyon where the city meets the mountains that cradle it. Until recently, she didn’t think much about wildfires happening near her.

“I heard that's happening in California. I heard that's happening in Florida,” she said.

Then, at the beginning of June, she got a letter from her insurer Progressive stating it was unable to offer a renewal policy because her property's wildfire risk score exceeded their eligibility guidelines. Borup was surprised.

“We’re in Salt Lake City proper, we’re on city water, we’re just kind of a mainstream suburban neighborhood.”

Plus, she said she’s also taken steps to mitigate fire risk already like using concrete over wood and putting asphalt shingles on the roof. Still, according to the U.S. Forest Service, her neighborhood is in one of the areas at the greatest risk for a wildfire in the city.

Nationwide, that risk is increasing.

“Not only do we have more homes and businesses in the path of the fire, we also are seeing the number of catastrophes increase and at a more severe rate,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association.

Walker points to the Marshall Fire in neighboring Colorado, which burned fast and furious in suburbs near Boulder.

“We had, in 2021, Colorado's most expensive and worst wildfire catastrophe in really suburban neighborhoods that didn't consider themselves at risk for wildfire. Yet we lost almost 1,100 homes in that fire in December.”

At the same time, record inflation and labor shortages are making things more expensive. Basically, “everything that insurance pays for is becoming more costly,” she said. “All of those things, unfortunately, are contributing to rising insurance premiums.”

Home insurance premiums rose by 12% in 2022, 17% in 2023, and 19% in 2024, according to the Utah Insurance Department.

That is also leading to some insurance companies re-evaluating how much risk they can take on to begin with.

“It's not like a retail store where they just want to sell more products or sweaters. For insurance companies, when you're seeing escalating risk and escalating costs, they're trying to strike a balance between protecting the policyholders they have and taking on more high-risk properties, for example, in wildfire areas,” said Walker.

This can lead to people like Borup losing insurance from companies looking to decrease their exposure to risk and the potential costs of covering losses.

“It just feels frustrating because they said there's nothing that we can do to improve our fire hazard or our risk or anything,” said Borup. “It just has to do with the region that we live in.”

Still, according to Walker, Utahns are in a relatively good spot compared to other states in the region when it comes to insurance. In the event a homeowner cannot renew with their carrier they can shop around. And, unlike other states, “we are seeing Utah residents being able to find” another policy carrier. Although, it may be at a higher premium.

Ultimately it’s a matter of everyone re-evaluating what it means to be at risk for a wildfire.

“We do really need to stop thinking about wildfires as just a mountain community problem.”

Tilda is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in the Central Utah bureau based out of Provo.
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