By Andrew Hay
(Reuters) - California on Thursday ordered a one-year halt on insurance companies dropping customers in wildfire-prone areas at a time when state insurers are trying to limit spiraling costs from climate change.
The moratorium, the first of its kind in the state, affects about 800,000 homeowners in areas hit by 2019 wildfires. State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara also asked insurers to voluntarily stop cancelling clients in other areas at risk to wildfire.
"I am calling on insurance companies to push the pause button on issuing non-renewals for one year to give breathing room to communities and homeowners,” Lara said in a statement.
The moratorium, which ends Dec. 5, 2020, is meant to draw insurers and state legislators to the negotiating table to find a solution to the state's wildfire insurance dilemma.
The measure still leaves tens of thousands of rural homeowners dealing with insurance cancellations and rate increases after the state's deadliest wildfires killed over 100 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and structures in 2017 and 2018.
The insurance industry is retreating from at-risk areas after paying nearly $25 billion in damage claims for the record fire years, according to California Department of Insurance data.
Fires in 2017 alone wiped out a decade of underwriting profits for state insurers, according to John Norwood, a Sacramento lobbyist for insurance firms.
At the same time, California's homeowner insurance premiums remain below the national average, ranked 32nd in state terms in 2016, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, likened the situation to an auto insurer thinking it was insuring stable, 50-year-old drivers.
"In fact, they're insuring a bunch of 16-year-olds hopped up on Red Bull doing social media postings while they're driving," said Frazier, citing California's high risk of wildfires.
Reinsurers that provide insurers financial protection are raising rates based on climate-change exposure and state insurance companies need to adjust risk levels, rates or both to continue covering fire-prone areas, he said.
The state's insurance commissioner cited evidence, however, that homeowner insurance had already become difficult for many Californians to obtain from traditional providers, forcing them into expensive, less comprehensive options like the state's "insurer of last resort" FAIR Plan.
Among other goals, Lara is looking for legislation to require insurers to provide coverage to customers and communities that have taken steps to mitigate wildfire risks.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)