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Uninsured and facing fire: Destructive wildfires on Colville Reservation highlight lack of home, renters insurance

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 11, 2021

By Eli Francovich and Emma Epperly The Spokesman-Review

NESPELEM, Wash. – Surveying the charred remnants of her home last week, Karen Bunbury sobbed while her longtime partner, Monty Piatope, dug through the rubble searching for belt buckles.

Their home, and RV, both burned in a fast-moving wildfire last month on the Colville Reservation, near Nespelem, Wash. They watched flames consume a house that had been in the family since 1978, and the duo just barely saved their cat Maurice.

There wasn’t time to get anything else, said Piatope, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe.

“I didn’t know how to handle it or deal with it,” said Bunbury (a Shuswap tribal member) of losing everything. “Because now where are we going to go? What are we going to do? The first thing I thought is we need to go find a tent.”

The devastation of that loss was made only worse by the fact that neither the home, nor the RV, were insured.

That’s not an uncommon situation for the roughly 10,000-enrolled members of the Colville Confederated Tribes, said chairman Andrew Joseph. He estimated that anywhere between 30% and 50% of tribal members don’t have home or renters insurance. The tribe doesn’t know the exact number, but it should have a better estimate once a housing-needs assessment is completed later this year. Of the 22 families who lost their homes during last year’s fires, six didn’t have insurance, according to Faith Zacherle who helps lead the native-run nonprofit River Warrior Society which provides aid to families impacted by the fires.

The lack of insurance is a complicated issue. And it’s one that changes the calculus for homeowners when they’re told to evacuate, particularly for a tribe whose lands have been torched by three major wildfires in the past six years.

“A lot of our people can’t afford insurance for their homes,” Joseph said, adding later, “That’s why so many people stuck close to home to protect their homes.”

Dan Nanamkin can attest to that.

Nanamkin lives less than a mile from the burned-out remnants of Piatope’s home. As the fire raced through bone-dry grass on July 12, he had to do the same awful uninsured math: leave now or risk everything to save everything?

He stayed. His home survived.

“That’s why I decided to fight until the very end,” he said. “If we lose our home, then that’s it. There is no replacing it.”

Other tribal members told similar stories. Ralph Moses’ uninsured home nearly burned, the flames surrounding his property on three sides. Moses evacuated with his family, but then walked back, dodging a sheriff’s roadblock, only to turn around once it became too dangerous.

He too got lucky, and his home survived.

But the stories highlight a complex stew of issues that make it difficult for tribal members to get insurance, said Douglas Marconi Sr. the executive director Colville Indian Housing Authority.

Those factors include the reservation’s rural location, a mix of landownership that can complicate finding insurance and generational poverty.

“We struggle like any other rural community,” he said.

Rural life, rural risk

The Colville Reservation is remote, far from major infrastructure which can make finding home insurance harder and more expensive, said Kara Klotz a spokesperson for the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner.

“There are dozens of factors that go into when an insurer decides if they are going to insure your property and if they are going to charge you for that,” she said.

Distance from a fire hydrant. A fire department. Road access. How likely the area is to burn.

The unincorporated town of Keller is a good example. It has no emergency medical services or fire station, said Zacherle who lives in Keller.

“It takes 45 minutes if there is an emergency,” she said. “I know this because I have health conditions.”

Plus, the town has only two evacuation routes. One of the routes, the Keller Ferry, has been broken since July 9. In late July, the U.S. Coast Guard approved emergency use of the ferry during fire emergencies. However, during the peak of last month’s fire, there was only one way in or out of Keller – U.S. Route 21.

In some states – California, in particular – these factors combined with more frequent and severe wildfire have prompted some insurance companies to withdraw coverage.

In 2018, Washington’s Insurance Commissioner received a spate of complaints from homeowners saying that their insurance agencies hadn’t renewed their insurance contracts, Klotz said.

So, the Insurance Commissioner requested data from Washington insurers.

“We found that in the fall of 2018, fewer than 800 consumers were non-renewed specifically due to wildfire risk,” Klotz said.

The full report is exempt from public records request per state law, but Klotz said it points to the fact that Washington’s home-insurance market is “pretty stable.” The average homeowner premium is between $700 and $800 a year for a home worth $300,000 dollars.

But for a tribe that has an unemployment rate of nearly 10% and a median household income of $42,000, homeownership isn’t always so clear cut. Many tribal members live in trailers or in homes that have been passed from generation to generation, all which can “make things complicated” Klotz said.

Consider trailers.

James McCraigie’s trailer burned during the 2020 fires on the Colville Reservation. He’d inherited the trailer from his dad, who’d bought it in 1983. The trailer was paid off, but it was getting old and “starting to fall apart.”

McCraigie never tried to get it insured.

“My mind was on other things than insurance,” he said.

But even if he had, it likely would have been a difficult task.

That’s because coverage for manufactured homes is “a little more limited,” said Janet Ruiz a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit education group funded by the insurance industry.

“They do tend to be more vulnerable to loss. Especially fire,” she said.

Now, McCraigie lives in a tiny home built and paid for by the River Warrior Society

Who owns the land?

There is another complicating factor when it comes to home insurance in Indian Country, said Joseph, the tribal chairman.

Landownership.

In 1887, the General Allotment Act of 1887 divided American Indian treaty lands into individually owned parcels of land known as allotments. Once the people with the original allotment died, their land was passed to their heirs as undivided interest, which is a fancy way of saying no single heir exclusively owns the land.

Instead, the land is ”held in trust by the United States for the benefit of its Indian owner.”

The 1.4-million-acre Colville Reservation, which was established in 1872 by a presidential executive order and was originally twice as large as it is now “consists of tribally owned lands held in federal trust status for the Confederated Tribes, land owned by individual Colville tribal members, most of which is held in federal trust status, and land owned by others, described as fee property and taxable by counties,” according to a tribal history.

All of which matters in the context of home insurance. The more complicated the land ownership, the more complicated the insurance process.

Nanamkin, said that’s the case for the property he lives on, which is co-owned by a number of different relatives and has made insuring his home difficult.

“That’s a big issue for all of our tribal members, that allotment act,” he said. “That really affected us.”

Nanamkin is working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to try and resolve that but it’s “slow as hell.”

There is one insurance agency that specializes in this kind of complicated, tribal-specific insurance: Amerind. Tribally owned and based in New Mexico, Amerind insures individuals and tribes throughout Indian Country, including on the Colville Reservation, said underwriter manager Shannon Lastyona.

But accessing those resources takes education and resources. Many may not know how or where to turn for assistance, she said.

“Sometimes it’s a lack of resources,” she said.

Education and resources

As a child, Angie Red Horse, attended multiple high schools as she moved almost once a year. But she always ended up back on the Colville Indian Reservation. So, when 20 years ago she moved into housing subsidized by the federal government, near Mallot, Wash., she was thrilled to have stability in her life.

Red Horse had a place to call home, until last year when a massive fire over Labor Day weekend destroyed her house.

“It was horrible. That house had everything that I held precious besides my dogs,” Red Horse said. “It’s the only home that my family had steady for all these years. So very horrible.”

Red Horse didn’t have renters insurance. Once the flames subsided, all she was left with was a pile of rubble.

“I thought I was coming back to a house, not devastation,” Red Horse said.

When she realized her home was gone, Red Horse said she was “devoid of emotion.”

Not only was her home gone, but so were her neighbors’ on either side of her. To her knowledge, none of them had insurance either.

“Most of us don’t have renters insurance because we’re all below or near the poverty line,” Red Horse said. “We can’t afford it.”

That’s a common story, said Marconi Sr. the executive director of the Colville Indian Housing Authority.

“There are very few people who can afford the content insurance,” he said. “Let alone the property (insurance.)”

Tribal Housing owns and manages roughly 400 units, of which Red Horse’s was one. And while only three of those units burned last year, he said that puts pressure on an already tight housing situation.

“We don’t really have emergency housing available,” he said.

That shortage is exacerbated by the reservation’s remoteness.

“I have a 17-unit development ready to go,” he said. “I have the infrastructure completed. The streets. Water. The sewer connection is in the ground. I put a bid out … and I received no bids last month.”

At the same time, federal funding for the tribal agency hasn’t kept up with need, he said. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated $650 million for tribal housing, dispersed among roughly 600 tribes and villages. The Colville Indian Housing Authority received about $5.3 million.

Marconi estimates his agency needs $7 million to meet current housing demand.

“It’s not enough,” he said. “We try to lobby Congress for reauthorization of that funding every year. It just doesn’t make the news. It just doesn’t make headway.”

And even when the resources are there, connecting homeowners and renters to them can be challenging.

For example, Red Horse said that while tribal housing helped get her into interim housing after last year’s fire, they never discussed renters insurance with her. She wished they had.

According to Marconi Sr., tribal housing provides classes for homeowners and renters, both of which cover insurance options.

But when living hand-to-mouth, insurance – whether renters or home – is not necessarily the first thing on anyone’s mind.

“Feeding their families is more important than paying for insurance,” said Joseph, the tribal chairman.

The fires return

This year, when fires started again on the reservation fueled by historic temperatures and a regionwide drought, Red Horse said she had panic attacks, scared she would have to go through losing everything again.

“The smoke and everything, it kind of triggers you,” she said.

Even the new home next door to her temporary housing serves as a reminder of what can happen when fires come. It burned last year, too.

With such high fire danger, Red Horse has a bag packed and is ready to go at a moment’s notice. Luckily, last month’s fires didn’t get close to her new neighborhood but are just another illustration of how important insurance will be when she moves back to her old neighborhood in a new home, she said.

Still, Red Horse has accepted that she could lose everything again and is resigned to living in fire country.

“It caused a lot of panic and trauma,” she said of this summer’s fires. “All it did was stress me out but that happens every fire season when you live in this area.”

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