California’s Latest Wildfire Problem: Insuring the Tree Trimmers

Contractors crucial to clearing vegetation around power lines face higher coverage costs because of potential liability in later disasters.

PARADISE, Calif. — D.J. Gomes and his logging crew were working in California’s wine country last fall, helping clear vegetation away from power lines and reduce the ever-growing wildfire risk. While they were gone, fire came for their hometown.

The disaster that followed, the Camp Fire, killed 86 people and virtually leveled Paradise, where Mr. Gomes’s house was one of the few spared. His loneliness has started to ease as stores reopen and displaced neighbors move into new modular homes. But getting back to work has been more complicated.

Mr. Gomes owns Crossfire Tree & Vegetation, one of many companies that have been contractors for utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric in fire-prevention work. State law makes the utilities liable for fires caused by their equipment, increasing the urgency of trimming trees and maintaining the power grid. But contractors face liability, too, if fires are traced to what they did or failed to do. And that is making it harder to get the insurance needed for the work.

“Every year I go to renew, it’s a huge fight,” Mr. Gomes said. Despite his company’s safety record, “they keep increasing the amount of insurance they want you to have.”

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