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Report: San Marcos, CA Officials Withheld Data in Fire Risk Map to Prevent Insurance Rate Changes

Source: NY Times

Posted on 18 Oct 2010

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According to The North County Times, San Marcos, California city officials kept secret a color-coded map showing the risk of wildfire danger to various neighborhoods for fear insurance companies would use the information to justify raising rates or dropping policies.

Officials opted to circulate a version of the map that omitted the marking of Coronado Hills and neighboring Attebury as deep red, which signifies “extreme wildfire hazard,” city leaders told newspaper. Shadings showing five other neighborhoods with “very high” risk were also left off the map.

The map that was released showed all wildfire areas in a uniform shade of green. The maps were produced after a study commissioned by San Marcos in 2005 to assess wildfire risks for the city’s communities.

The newspaper obtained the color-coded map after it was briefly presented to planning commissioners at a meeting over the summer.

Chief Todd Newman of the Fire Department, City Manager Paul Malone and other city officials said that the color-coded map was intended for internal planning use. It was not made public out of concerns that insurance companies would increase rates or cancel policies for Coronado Hills and Attebury residents if they saw it, the officials said.

They did not explain why the map was shown at the summer meeting.

City leaders said that although they did not release the color-coded map, they provided residents with detailed information about fire risks.

“We develop specific fire threat assessments on a parcel-by-parcel basis,” Mr. Malone told the newspaper. “We make specific recommendations to homeowners in that area. The people that live in that area absolutely do know that they live in a wildfire threat zone.”

One elected official said there had been no reason to withhold the map in 2005.

“I don’t know why that wouldn’t have been released,” Councilman Mike Preston said. “Insurance companies would get hold of it and assessments might go up, and people would be unhappy, but I guess you have to balance that against people knowing about the risk