Living with Fire Risk

Parent Q&A

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  • I am looking for a person or company that provides fire mitigation services to create a defensible space around my property in the Berkeley Hills. I would appreciate any recommendations!

    Our go to for years is Richard and his long-term crew “family” at Oakland Hills Brush Clearing. Knows exactly what the fire department is looking for, specific and knowledge when bidding, does exactly what he says, leaves a clean site, and keeps in touch whenever he sees issues “growing” for our consideration that we may not see with our non-veg management view.  Oakland Hills Brush Clearing

  • Hi folks,

    We currently are renting in the Berkeley Hills and moving to the Oakmore Neighborhood in Oakland.  We're looking for homeowners insurance, but were told by a number of carriers it's in a high fire risk zone so they won't cover us.  This was surprising to us - I thought that since we're on the other side of 13, it was considered lower fire risk than areas like Montclair, Piedmont Pines, etc.  Farmers said they'll cover us, but without fire protection, for which we'd need to go through the state program, which is incredibly expensive.  

    Does anyone have any advice on homeowners insurance companies in this area that will cover home + fire?  Thanks in advance!

    I would recommend going to an insurance broker, who will represent you and find you the best deal. I have used McDermott Costa in San Leandro with success. Direct writers such Farmers, State Farm, Allstate do not always have your best interest at stake and can decide to stop writing policies or drop you suddenly. A good broker will have your back. It’s also one stop shopping which makes it easier. Good luck!

    We don't know of a specific company (maybe Geico?) that would cover it if they do certain underwriting for the fire risk. Unfortunately, we have friends in the Berkeley Hills who had homeowner's insurance and subsequently dropped from their plans once the wildfire seasons kept becoming too high of a risk. Our friends have since all moved out of the hills too. We had to get flood insurance for our home and it was covered by FEMA, which ended up being much cheaper than any other private insurer. I don't know if they have a program like that for fires that might be cheaper than the state programs?

    We had a hard time finding coverage for our Berkeley Hills home when we bought in 2019. I scoured a bunch of websites and found Geico and State Farm were the only majors willing to cover our address. I ended up working with Frank Bliss's office in Albany to get the whole kit-and-caboodle (Home, Earthquake, Car & Umbrella) including Fire insurance. My understanding is insurers manage their risk on a block-by-block basis so I think you'll either need an independent agent who can shop for you OR do what I did, and spend 1/2 a day calling around different insurers. Good luck!

    Welcome to the club! We can't get fire insurance other than through the fair plan. Premiums have been doubling or tripling every year. They also keep trying to drop us using really dumb excuses (eg name on policy isn't exact match for name on mortgage due to inclusion of middle name.) It's so bad that I won't consider buying a new house unless I can get regular fire insurance. Call every insurance provider and ask them if they'll write a policy for your address. They all have different rules but none of them wanted to cover our house.

    Make sure that your rebuilding budget is a lot higher than the value of your house. If there's a big fire, everything gets ridiculously expensive and you may not be able to rebuild if your budget is only your current home value. If it isn't too late, I recommend not buying the house that's hard to insure for fire.

    Yeah, welcome to the new reality of life in Northern California. Our 20-year-old, no-claims-ever policy got non-renewed this year because of wildfire danger. I attended an online presentation put on by the Montclair Neighborhood Council this spring that was really helpful in explaining what the reasons and the options were - I don't see it on their website ( but maybe if you contacted them they have an archive of the event somewhere. Here are my quick take-aways from the presentation: A few big-name companies (State Farm, Travelers, Lloyds) are still writing policies in this area, but it's often on a case-by-case basis. "Non-admitted" carriers (not technically licensed with the state, but you can check their rating at or through the LASLI list on the CA Dept. of Insurance website) like Atain, Bigfoot and Heritage are more lenient, but as I understand it (which is barely), since they're not backed by the state there's a possibility they might not have enough money to pay out after a big disaster, so you have to do your due diligence. You can save a bit by increasing the deductible as high as you're comfortable with. Worst case scenario, fire coverage is available (at a high price, as you discovered) through California FAIR Plan, with a supplemental DIC plan through another carrier to cover theft and other non-fire issues. We ended up going through the broker who helped put on the MNC presentation ( and they found us replacement coverage. It is more expensive than our old policy, but they were great to work with and I found it much less stressful to go through them than calling a bunch of different insurance companies on my own, so I'd highly recommend using a broker. Good luck - it will work out but I know it's stressful in the meantime!

    Try talking to Rob Spence. He's really great and helped us when we were dealing with a similar issue:

    Rob Spence
    Agent/Broker Lic 0B36752
    (510) 725-1973 / rspence [at] 

  • We’re considering moving to Pleasanton this year but are concerned about the potential fire danger in the area. Does anyone have insight on which areas of Pleasanton have the highest fire danger? Or, info on the areas that were evacuated - or had evacuation warnings - during the recent SCU (Santa Clara) Lightning Complex fires?

    City of Pleasanton has never been evacuated.  It's the rural unincorporated wooded are south of Interstate 580 and east of Highway 84 that's the highest danger.  But even then I would not worry I can't remember there ever being time when any part of Pleasanton had any large scale fires like we have seen.  Places such as Santa Cruz mountains, Oakland/Berkeley Hills, Lake Berryessa, etc. have always had large fires every 10 - 30 years. The lightning storm we saw this year has never happened before..

    Pleasanton is very nice and I would not worry about fires or evacuations. It would be on my list of places to live if it were not for the summer heat.  Pleasanton can get very hot in the late summer.

  • Fall Fire Season: Is it time to relocate?

    (14 replies)

    Hi friends -- for the last 4 years, I've referred to the fall fire season as: 'the fifth CA season: Mama questions her life choices,' but this year, with the insanely early and intense fire season on top of COVID and all else, I'm really struggling and wondering if it is time to explore leaving the area. I am not a CA native, but have lived in various parts of the East Bay for more than a decade; my husband has never lived anywhere else. His parents are both in the East Bay; mine moved 2 years ago to Reno/Tahoe to be closer to us, and my brother and his family now live in Roseville in a house that they bought with the intention of it being the only house they'll ever own. We have a preschooler and toddler. We bought our house in the Richmond area more than 5 years ago, and are now pretty deeply rooted in our local community, to the point where I've seriously considered running for city council or school board. My husband's an introverted sort who struggles with making new friends in a place he's lived all his life, and also works in software, so is wary of moving away from the tech coast. When the weather is good, the kids and I basically live outside, and our neighborhood is perfect for that kind of lifestyle. We have amazing neighbor friends who I've been scheming to build a real neighborhood community with for the last 2 years. And yet.

    I grew up in northern New England and still have connections there, including some beloved relatives who just moved back to Maine. This week, I'm bouncing wildly back and forth between all the reasons to stay (everything outlined in the preceding paragraph), and the specter of the West just getting drier and hotter and more charred every year, with a longer, uglier fire season every fall. The cost of living hasn't prompted these thoughts in me; the traffic is annoying but manageable; the risk of "the big one" doesn't scare me most of the time (we've done all the preparations we can, have EQ insurance, etc.); but the idea of being locked in our homes for months at a time, literally unable to even play in the yard, every year for the rest of my kids' childhoods... that's starting to feel overwhelming. If winter lasts for 4 months as it did when I was a kid, I can put the kids in wool hats and snowsuits and spend the day outside, but there's no "good clothing" for fire season.

    I know this list has some subscribers who've gone elsewhere. Anybody have any advice they could offer? <3

    GO go go go! You have connections and community make the change! The time is NOW to move. Change is constant and the only thing that will keep us growing. We are headed away from the West and I know we will all survive and thrive. If you are looking for a sign or confirmation let it be this, GO! 

    My husband and I have been having the same conversations – I assume there are many people and families having this conversation. Especially if you have the flexibility like both my husband and I have to work 100% at home and from anywhere. Outside of that, a lot of your situation is the same as ours. We love our neighborhood and my husband was born and raised in Oakland with most of my husbands family live within 20 minutes of us here in Oakland. My family all live on the east coast in North Carolina and one day I hope to move back to be closer to my family. We have started looking to purchase a home in NC to invest in and rent out via Airbnb or long term rental so we can have this property in our back pocket if needed and at the ready if we want to move. We know if we do move back there, the city that we would want to live in has a housing market that has been on the rise for years and we worry that it will be insanely competitive by the time we want to move.

    I know not everyone can take this same path that we are considering (and I know we are fortunate to even have this as an option). I just thought that it would be helpful to tell you our thoughts – you are not alone.

    Hi Mama!

    Just wanted to say I am also a Maine native living in the East Bay! No advice really, but wanted to let you know we are in the same boat. Similarly, prior to COVID my parents were attempting to move to the area to be closer to our family and kids, however everything has fallen to pieces with COVID and now the fires. Over the past month we began to consider moving back to the East coast, but more recently we are seriously entertaining the idea. Weather is one of the biggest reasons why we love/moved to the Bay area, but what is there to enjoy when you are stuck indoors with the windows shut and any museums/kid friendly spots are all closed?

    Sincerely, Also had enough.

    The fire season in the West can be scary.  If your post mentioned health issues that become really bad because of the air quality (like asthma), I would agree that it would really be time to consider a move.  Please remember that everywhere in the US has some type of hazardous weather.  Yes, I mean life-threatening weather.  It’s easy to forget about weather issues living in the Bay Area, because honestly, most of the time the weather is so easy.  

    Here’s a different perspective from someone that grew up in Northern India.  This smoky weather “feels just like winters growing up in India”.  Yes, the air quality here during the fires is about the same as every year in a country that still uses fires as household heating and industry fuel.  Is it bad?  Yes.  Are other weather issues bad?  Yes.  Do you have to stay locked up indoors for the fires?  Hmmm.  Not unless you have health issues related to smoke.  To me, it’s not really different than staying indoors in the summer to avoid heatstroke in the south, or to stay indoors in the NorthEast when it gets so cold that it hurts to breathe.  To me, the biggest difference in geography is attitude.  Californians complain bitterly while a New Englander would take pride in being resilient in the face of adversity.  I can just imagine hearing a New England response to the smoke—just put in an N95 mask and ski goggles, and you are fine to play outside for the day.  Hope you get a chuckle in recognition of the thought of saying that in a Boston accent.  :)

    Only you know what is easiest to tolerate for your family.  Best of luck in your decision.

    No advice but I FEEL YOU. We love love love our kid’s preschool, our friends, and probably the best neighbors we’ll ever have. And lots of other things about the bay and west coast. But family is on the east coast and the thought of another fire season is starting to tip the scales.  

    I don’t really have any advice but we are in the same boat. I am a Bay Area native, and in fact live in my childhood home. Most of the year I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Like you, we spend most of our time outside enjoying everything the Bay Area has to offer. Then: fire season. Suddenly I remember that there are five of us in an 800 square foot house. Not being able to at least take my kids to an indoor playground because of Covid exacerbates things so much. My husband is from DC and we are considering a move back to the area. I would be really sad to leave.  We know we need a bigger house so the question is whether we will invest more in the area or put down roots in DC. Thinking about it makes me so sad. 

    Thanks so much for posting this.  My family (my wife and our 15-month-old) are going through the same thing and we've been wondering what others are thinking about it.  We've been in the bay area for 13 years and we bought a house in Albany with the intent to raise our family here.  We absolutely love where we live (all of: the east bay, the greater bay area, and California).  But we're worried about the long-term health effects of raising young children in an area blanketed in smoke every year for weeks at a time.  (We've read that it's potentially very bad for developing lungs, but that people don't really know.  Seems like a big risk to take?)  As you mentioned, it's also a big bummer to be stuck inside for that time -- especially given that September and October used to be the very nicest times to be outside in the bay area!

    Similar to you, we have family in New England (Massachusetts and Rhode Island), and we've started thinking about relocating there.  We never would have considered that a few weeks ago.  Though I grew up there, I find it very daunting to try to find a similar community (in terms of schools, diversity, walkability, etc.) -- and no idea how to do this from afar with a 15-month-old.  The places that I have found seem even more expensive than the east bay.  And might they be as susceptible to devastating hurricanes in New England as we are to smoke clouds here?

    I don't have a lot to add except that we're going through the same thing: really not wanting to move, feeling like it might be untenable to stay, and wildly swinging back and forth on it.  I'm interested to hear how others are thinking about this!

    One thing we try to keep in mind: if it weren't also for COVID, we could still visit places like museums, aquariums, restaurants, indoor sports, etc. when the smoke is bad.  It's the combination that's so rough right now.

    We pulled the plug this summer and moved back East. COVID was the final straw (and an opportunity given the remote work) but getting out before "fire season" was certainly a thought we had. But we weren't rooted so deeply in the Bay Area -  we had close friendships and work but our families are entirely on the east coast (New England and mid-Atlantic) and we didn't live in the Bay for all that long. So far no looking back for us. We were able to buy a house exactly where we wanted, something we could never have done in the Bay Area, and our mortgage is a lot less than our rent was so we actually feel some more financial freedom too. I love being able to drive to see our family. I think this is a deeply personal decision and there are so many factors here, I would listen to your gut and take a deep (indoor) breath before you go one way or the other.

    We moved to Maine a year ago. I cannot count the number of times, just since this school year began, that I have said out loud "I'm so glad we don't live in California." Things aren't like before with Covid, but our kids are back in school in person, you can easily go out to enjoy nature (or even restaurants and shopping- masked, of course) without crowds, and even if we have to shelter at home, our property is so much bigger than in CA for a fraction of the cost. Covid will, we hope, get better, but the smoke will get worse. Winters here, unfortunately for the planet, are getting warmer and shorter. Things we love about Maine: nature, incredibly kind people, great schools, cost of living, traffic, no crowds, beautiful seasons, the ability to own a home, so much time (you don't realize how much of your life is spent commuting, not just to work but everything, until everything's within 15 minutes away)! What we miss: friends and diversity (of people and food). In short- no regrets! If we knew then what we know now, we absolutely would've regretted staying. It has made the difference between surviving and thriving, even though we wouldn't have thought of it as only "surviving" before.

    We moved to Maine from Berkeley in 2019 with our toddler and I am very grateful we did. Most of our friends here are either transplants or grew up in Maine and moved back in their 30s after living in DC/NYC/CA. Remarkably, we have several friends here from the Bay and even Berkeley.  It's been easy for us to make lots of new friends, though of course everything is different now thanks to COVID. We love being outdoors in all weather and live right on the coast. Politically, Maine is becoming more and more progressive, with Democrats now controlling the State House and the Governor's seat.

    Beyond the obvious of missing our Bay friends and family, we miss Burmese and Salvadoran food, though Portland has most other cuisines well covered, and we wish there were more BIPOC people here. Especially raising a white child, I worry about exposing him to enough cultures different from his own.   

    Overall, it was absolute the right decision for our family. I have not regretted it once, even when it's 10 degrees and windy! 

    We thought about this issue as well and came to the conclusion that 2 months of smoke here was preferable to anywhere else. With all due respect, 4 months winter in Maine seems optimistic. Perhaps spending a month or two in Maine during the smoke season here might be an alternative? 

    We moved back to the East Coast and closer to some family then wound up coming back to the Bay Area. We missed everything about it. This is home.

    From what I'm reading here, it sounds to me like staying local is the very best option. I've moved back and forth between the east and west coasts multiple times and if you have hesitations now, they are not going to go away in what I have experienced. Your neighborhood and local community (plus family) being local makes such a huge difference. This year has been brutal, east or west or in between. Staying connected to where you feel most comfortable and connected is priceless.

    We’re considering the same thing. We had to relocate at the beginning of the pandemic temporarily (or so we thought at the time) to my partner’s home state in order to take care of elderly parents. It was heartbreaking to see the wildfires from afar, and hear from friends about the smoky skies. We’re now considering selling our house and making our temporary relocation permanent, as our time away has given us a new perspective. I imagine with climate change that the wildfires will become a regular occurrence. That, combined with the earthquake potential, the property crime, the traffic, the COL, the general feeling of harassed busy-ness I remember from the Before times... all that made us realize that the quality of life wasn’t as good in the Bay Area as I had thought it was. We don’t have family in the Bay Area, though, so I imagine that factor would make the decision to leave a much more fraught one.