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Summit County

Summit County councilor warns fire risk may bring a 'wave of insurance cancellations.' One resident said that's already happened to her.

Courtesy of Megan Franz
A Tollgate Canyon family recently had their homeowners insurance canceled, with the carrier citing fire risk as the cause. After being rejected by a handful of other insurance companies, the family eventually found coverage.

Summit County Councilor Glenn Wright says a 'wave of insurance cancellations' might be coming for homes built in forested areas. When that happened to one Tollgate Canyon resident this fall, she called it 'terrifying.'

Megan Franz loves where she lives. For about four years, she and her husband have shared a Tollgate Canyon A-frame they just painted a favorite shade of green.

“We're kind of out in the woods. But it's also just a really cool community. You can go for a dog walk and end up stopping like five times on the walk just by running into neighbors and friends,” she said.

They love the outdoor access the mountainous neighborhood provides: backcountry skiing in the winter, trail runs in the summer. But they realized that forested remoteness had consequences last fall.

“We just got this letter from our house insurance saying it was going to be canceled,” Franz said. “So we were understandably both pretty freaked out in the moment, pretty upset, not knowing what we were going to do.”

Franz said the letter cited “steep slopes and excessive fuels for fire” as reasons for the cancellation. She said they eventually found coverage elsewhere after being rejected by a handful of other insurance carriers.

“It's terrifying. This is our house. This is our home. This is where we live and we love this community and we've put in so many hours work. But it's scary thinking that it could all go up just, you know, if someone drives through with chains dragging, or a strike of lightning,” she said. “It's terrifying thinking that if our home insurance ends up not being renewed or being canceled, that we'd have to leave. Because I love this place.”

Summit County Councilor Glenn Wright, drawing on his experience working in the insurance industry for 30 years, warned at a recent council meeting that what happened to the Franzes might become more common.

“I fear that there is a big wave of insurance cancellations that may be coming to all the areas that are in the wildland urban interface,” Wright said.

The wildland urban interface refers to places where homes are built in wild, forested areas. There are many examples in Summit County in addition to Tollgate Canyon — Summit Park, Weber Canyon, even parts of Old Town Park City.

Wright said the industry was seeing increasing losses in the West from drought and ensuing wildfires. He predicted the industry would soon issue criteria that could change what insurers cover.

Wright said insurance companies typically deal with increasing risk by raising rates or limiting exposure. The latter could lead to companies limiting coverage in some areas.

“I had a similar situation. I was transferred from the Northeast to Florida after Hurricane Andrew and I was required to harden my home against windstorm or I couldn't be insured,” he said. “There was mass cancellations for windstorm in that part of the country. It's possible that that could happen again.”

While insurance is state regulated, Wright said, the county could step in to mandate what’s called defensible space around homes and other measures that slow forest fires.

He suggested that work, if done on a neighborhood scale, could reduce fire risk enough to be noticed by insurance companies.

Franz said she and her husband had put dozens of hours into doing such work around their house. And while the intent of those programs is right, she said there are other considerations.

“In theory, it could maybe be helpful. But I also think that it's really hard to do that. Because the defensible space that my husband and I have worked to create isn't done yet. I don't know if it'll ever be done. And it takes a lot of backbreaking labor,” she said. “Not everyone is physically capable of creating it, and don't have the funds to do it either.”

As for what she wants to see from the county, Franz advocated for a new fire station in Tollgate Canyon. That’s something that was promised to residents during the effort to annex into the North Summit Fire District in 2013.