Insurers Using Satellite Photos to Determine Fire Risk

September 27, 2004

Sheree DiCicco was shocked to learn that her insurance company used satellite images to determine her home was located too close to brush and would not be reinsured because of the potential for wildfire damage.

“I didn’t know insurance companies would, or even could, do such a thing,” said DiCicco, who lives in Auburn in the Sierra foothills northeast of Sacramento.

Increasingly, however, insurance companies are using satellites to identify homes at high risk of fire damage because of their proximity to brush, a development that alarms some state regulators and privacy advocates.

First American Property and Casualty Insurance Co., which insures DiCicco’s home, uses satellite imagery to examine about 10 percent of the properties it insures, the company said. Most of them are in areas of heavy brush in California, Nevada and Arizona.

First American spokeswoman Jo Etta Bandy told the Los Angeles Times for a story in Saturday’s editions that if satellite images are questioned, field inspectors can be called in to make determinations about coverage of homes, she said.

But state regulators say the practice is a form of redlining, discriminating against particular neighborhoods, and could lead to policies being arbitrarily canceled. Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi called it a serious problem but said he does not have the legal right to stop it.

“Insurance companies are using satellite imagery and just plain photos to redline vast areas of the state without taking into account the individual circumstances of an individual home,” he said.

In California particularly, more insurance companies have turned to technology to help with risk assessment after last year’s wildfires caused $2.6 billion in losses in Southern California.

Pete Moraga, spokesman for Insurance Information Network of California, a media relations organization supported by insurers, said use of satellite technology may prove to be positive if it makes the industry more efficient.

But Harvey Rosenfield, spokesman for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said the practice made him uneasy.

“I’d not heard of this before; it’s scary,” he said. “It has a creepy, intrusive aspect to it.”

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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