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Rebuilding Paradise: Nonprofit’s $500 ‘defensible space’ grants help cut residents’ insurance costs

PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — The letter from the insurance company arrived just before Brian and Morgan Gobba finally finished construction on their new house: Their homeowner’s policy was being canceled.

The Gobbas were among the first families to return to Paradise after the 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed 90% of the homes here. The house where Morgan grew up burned in the fire. The couple wanted to be part of restoring the town, but the process has been exhausting and expensive.

“A lot of people don’t realize that when you rebuild in a burnt-out town, you’re not starting at ground zero,” said Brian Gobba, who worked as a construction estimator and is now a fire prevention inspector for the town of Paradise. “You’re starting at negative five or 10, because you need to cut down the trees and get rid of a lot of things that are destroyed or toxic.”

Facing the prospect of not having protection for the home they’d worked so hard to build, the Gobbas enrolled in the California FAIR plan last year, the state’s insurer of last resort. Their annual premium is now $6,000.

“When you think you’re slowly gaining money and adding to your safety net and your bank account for your kids and family and future, and all of a sudden, ‘Hey, here’s a bill for $6,000,’ it really puts a hole in your heart,” said Gobba.

Households throughout Paradise are confronting an insurability crisis as companies, reeling from unprecedented wildfire losses, raise premiums and discontinue policies in California. But a local foundation is trying to help those families find ways to qualify for and afford private insurance again by giving them money to make their properties more resilient to wildfire.

The Rebuild Paradise Foundation opened applications last month for the Defensible Space Gravel Grant — a $500 voucher for enough gravel to create a 5-foot-wide buffer around a 2,000 square foot home, protecting the structure from vegetation or other combustible material.

The foundation hopes the vouchers help homeowners qualify for discounts insurers in California are required to give to customers who take certain risk-mitigation actions, including creating defensible space. After years of enduring the financial and emotional strain of rebuilding, many fire survivors may lack the capacity to make modest improvements like this on their own, according to Rebuild Paradise’s executive director, Jen Goodlin.

“People are just maxed out,” she said. “The new phase of the rebuild is landscaping, but there’s no resources to do it.”

Creating defensible space is also a key part of fire safety, according to Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan, director of the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise USA program. “When we look at how a wildfire spreads, it’s not often that big wall of flames that people think of,” she said. “It’s the little embers flying through the air.”

Those embers can ignite vegetation, especially if it’s dry and overgrown. Having space between vegetation and the base of the house can prevent flames and embers from reaching the structure itself.

Many new homes in Paradise haven’t been landscaped yet, leaving plenty of space for tall weeds to sprout in the spring and become highly flammable in the dry summer months. Gravel perimeters can prevent those weeds from growing, but they can be expensive and labor intensive to establish. The voucher is redeemable at a local rock business and includes delivery. If an applicant can’t lay the rock themselves, volunteers will come help.

“This idea of a little bit of funding going a long way is what we hear all the time,” said Fitzgerald-McGowan. “Sometimes it’s just that little bit of a leg up, because these costs do add up.”

Rebuild Paradise has doled out nearly $2.3 million since the fire, assisting households with construction costs not covered by FEMA or insurance like replacing septic infrastructure or surveying lots. The foundation was just winding down its largest grant program when, right before the five-year anniversary of the fire, insurance companies began raising premiums and dropping customers.

“It made everyone a little crazy,” said Goodlin, whose own annual premium went from $2,500 to $12,000. “We have new homes built to the highest fire safety measures, yet we’re getting these astronomical increases.”

Since 2017, California home insurance premiums have gone up an average of 35%. Seven of the 12 top home-insurers in California have paused or restricted new business in California since 2022, saying it’s become too risky to write policies in the disaster-prone state.

The state’s insurance department is working on new rules to appease companies’ concerns in exchange for them writing more policies near areas prone to wildfires. Those rules are expected to be finished by the end of the year.

Around 150 families have applied in the five weeks since the grant opened, and Goodlin said some insurance companies have even begun suggesting to their customers that they apply for the grant. The organization has received so much interest that it is pausing new applications while it reorganizes its processes. “We knew it would be a very popular grant program, but I don’t think we actually realized how extreme it would be,” said Goodlin.

The foundation aims to help 1,000 families, but it will have to raise more funds to do so, which means Goodlin herself is in the process of applying for grants to expand the program. She said she’s even reached out to some of the insurance companies themselves for donations, though none have responded.

Brian Gobba applied for the grant as soon as it opened. The Rebuild Paradise Foundation had already helped him with the costs of surveying and installing a new septic system.

Without that kind of assistance, Gobba said many of his neighbors would not have been able to return to Paradise. “The help of the grant money in all its little forms, it’s helping people get back to the ridge.“

A Marine who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gobba knows how important being with people who have gone through similar experiences can be in overcoming trauma. “The people that have moved back after the fire have each other to lean on,” he said. “That’s really good for the healing process.”

The gravel should be delivered this week. Gobba hopes that creating defensible space will not only allow them to landscape in a fire-safe way, but to also get off the FAIR plan. “Maybe somehow we could get our premiums and our yearly costs to go down,” he said. “It felt like it was grasping at straws, but we had to try.”

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Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

By GABRIELA AOUN ANGUEIRA
Associated Press

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