Malibu Country Estates recognized as ‘Firewise Community’

The Malibu Country Estates (MCE) neighborhood, with its 107 homes adjacent to Pepperdine University, was officially recognized as a Firewise community on May 18 by Firewise USA. The program is part of the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the “Firewise” designation is expected to result in lower fire insurance premiums for individual homeowners.

Currently, the discounts can be tricky — no insurance company is required to write fire policies in Malibu or for Firewise communities.

However, that may change soon. If a company does happen to write policies in Malibu, and if proposed State Department of Insurance “Safer from Wildfires” regulations go into effect as expected, insurance companies will need to consider the Firewise status in their rates going forward and provide discounts. 

Michael Soller, California’s deputy insurance commissioner, wrote MCE on August 12, confirming to them that “The proposed regulations will incorporate ‘Safer from Wildfires’ into insurance pricing, and we expect to submit them for final approval this summer. Once approved, insurance companies would need to submit rate filings for review by the Department of Insurance as required under Proposition 103. We currently have companies that offer discounts — reflecting about 40 percent of the marketplace. Once these regulations [pass], we will have 100 percent.” 

In May 2022, the Malibu Country Estates Homeowners’ Association (HOA) determined that only State Farm, USAA and California Fair Plan were offering new policies in their neighborhood, and that Fair Plan was often the most expensive of the three when they compared rates.

The quest for the neighborhood Firewise designation began when the big topic at the annual HOA meeting this year was skyrocketing fire insurance premiums. 

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“A number of members reported being dropped by their home insurance carriers and forced to pay ridiculously high amounts for coverage to one of the few companies that still offer it. We heard from one homeowner who got a quote for $60,000,” wrote HOA President Helmut Meissner. “We were asked by residents whether we, as an HOA, could do something to help with this issue. We all know the reason insurers abandon the Malibu market is that our entire city is categorized as Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone.”

A number of options were investigated, and “Firewise” was the HOA’s preferred choice. The national program was established 20 years ago and is currently being used as a standard wildfire risk reduction process by more than 1,800 communities in 43 states.

The board made a presentation to homeowners last March about Firewise and received positive feedback. Six homeowners volunteered to serve on the Firewise Committee: John Ardalan, Scott Dudelson, Dana Harger, Oona Khan, Helmut Meissner, and Gia Shaenan. 

They completed a required community wildfire risk assessment within a month, waited for an assessor’s report, and then created a three-year action plan based on that report.

The risk assessment step documents overall neighborhood conditions visible from common areas, utilizing Firewise training and checklists. The committee looks at things like roofing types, general building construction and condition, and general vegetation conditions. It’s not about fire department rules.

Malibu Country Estates is surrounded on three sides by Pepperdine University-owned land.

“One of the first things we did was to meet with Pepperdine executives about brush clearance, especially on the vacant land to our West and North,” Meissner reported. 

“We were assured the university meets or exceeds the requirements set by LA County Fire Department,” he continued. “They cited the fact they’re allowed to shelter in place during a fire as proof of their successful fire mitigation efforts. And we got this independently confirmed with an inspection performed by the former Fire Safety Liaison for the City of Malibu, Chris Brossard.”

Insurance carriers and agents can confirm a neighborhood’s participation in the Firewise program by looking up the official list on the National Fire Protection Association website; and can use the official site map to look up individual properties.

Big Rock was the first site to receive Firewise recognition in Malibu, in 2019, but other nearby neighborhoods have also qualified: the Westridge neighborhood of Calabasas; and Topanga, which was just recognized with 2,500 homes. 

The typical Firewise discount is about 10 percent off the premium for the dwelling only. For example, if insurance for the dwelling is $8,000 per year, the discount would be around $800.

“We know of homeowners who switched carriers and now save thousands of dollars,” Meissner wrote. “But in all honesty, not all the savings are because of the Firewise recognition — too many people do not shop thoroughly enough and simply rely on their broker.”

For example, he points out that State Farm is not represented by independent insurance agents, only by exclusive State Farm agents, and State Farm is one of the few companies still offering insurance in his neighborhood.

“I would encourage all residents of Malibu to work together and create more Firewise communities while, at the same time, improving the ignition resistance of and saving our homes for when the next fire comes around,” Meissner advised.

Two members of the Firewise Committee of Malibu Country Estates, HOA President Helmut Meissner and John Ardalan, hold up the plaque that will soon be posted at the entrance to their neighborhood, designating national recognition as a “Firewise” community. Photo by Jimmy Tallal/TMT.

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