WILDFIRES & INSURANCEIn Wildfire-Prone Areas, Homeowners Are Learning They’re Uninsurable

By Lois Parshley

Published 19 October 2023

Wildfires cause billions in home damage every year – and they are not only a problem in the U.S. West. Close to a quarter of the Americans now at risk of catastrophic wildfires live in the eastern half of the country, in places that may not be prepared to respond. Now, insurers no longer want to take on the risk.

It wasn’t the first summer Justin Guay went outside and choked on smoke. Or the second. But by the time wildfire season seemed to last year-round, he decided to move his family away from California and back to Utah, where he’d grown up. 

In 2020, Guay bought a house in Wasatch County near the jagged mountains, where he thought the worst climate impacts would be warmer winters with higher snow lines. An avid skier, Guay thought that was bad enough. But this spring, a letter arrived from his homeowners insurance company, brokered through Progressive. “They were dropping us because they would no longer be providing insurance — period,” he recalled. 

As they scrambled to find new coverage, Guay and his wife were shocked when their first inquiry was rejected. “They said, ‘We no longer provide insurance to homes in your area.’” Other companies at least provided quotes, though they all offered rates at least double his previous policy. Returning to his home state, he hadn’t considered fires as a risk. They were never a major issue while he was growing up. Shortly after he moved back, however, 5,000 people were evacuated from a neighboring town during a large burn.

As climate risks upend the insurance market, homeowners like Guay are being caught off guard. Losing his coverage really highlighted “the limitations of your individual ability to cope or deal with these impacts,” said Guay. It’s a nationwide problem he’s now turning to at work as the director of global climate strategy for the Sunrise Project, a climate justice nonprofit.

Climate change is now the main driver of the increase in fire weather in the western United States. As conditions get warmer and drier, blazes are burning over larger areas and scorching places once thought of as low-risk. This summer, around 100 people died as flames tore through Maui in one of the deadliest wildfires in American history, leaving behind $3.2 billion in property damage. Across the Western United States, existing dangers are getting worse: Four of the five largest wildfires in California’s history have occurred since 2020. Meanwhile, close to a quarter of the Americans now at risk of catastrophic wildfires live in the eastern half of the country, in places that may not be prepared to respond.