Families left up in smoke after fires destroy uninsured homes

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Gone in a flash of fire.

“It’s just the way it is,” said Jim Riman, 63, of Harrison, who knows first-hand how life can change forever in a moment.

Fire destroyed Riman’s mobile home in the early morning hours of March 20. He and his wife, Sally, escaped the inferno with minor injuries, but the home, family photos, furniture, car keys and even the glasses that Jim wore were destroyed in the flames.

Norway Fire Chief Dennis YatesSometimes all that
Norway Fire Chief Dennis YatesSometimes all that

“I lost everything,” said Riman, whose job at Burlington Homes in Oxford ended when the manufactured housing company closed several years ago. He and Sally, a public school music teacher for more than 30 years before her job was eliminated, raised their family of three children in the home they bought in 1988.

What little is left — including a smoke-damaged violin that Sally played in Maine’s largest fiddle orchestra, Fidelicious — was saved by dozens of firemen who stopped the fire as it was about to take the master bedroom.

The Rinmans did not carry home insurance.

Despite having the home insured during most of their years there, the Rimans lost their home insurance when Jim lost his job. When they were ready to reinsure it, they couldn’t.

Their daughter Christy Waite, a former insurance agent who now lives in Dallas, Texas, tried to help them get home insurance. But based on the age of the house and its condition — some water damage in the ceiling — she said she was unable to find a company to insure the home.

“They all told me they would not insure a double-wide mobile home that old,” she said.

The story of families losing their homes and belongings to fire are many in Maine. More than a dozen houses were destroyed by fire from Bridgton to Dixfield and Lisbon just during February and March this year.

An unknown number of them, such as the Rimans, lack homeowners insurance. Others, like the Bailey family, which includes five children ages 2 to 9, from New Sharon, did not have renters’ insurance. Each family, and many others, rely on the generosity of others to rebuild their lives.

“There is no law in Maine that requires homeowners to have homeowners insurance,” said Doug Dunbar, spokesman of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulations, which includes the Bureau of Insurance.

The National Association of Insurance Companies says homeowners insure their homes to cover and protect property assets and the homeowners’ legal liability for injuries to others or their property while on the homeowners’ property.

Most homeowners’ policy contracts require homeowners to carry 80, 90 or 100 percent of the replacement cost of the home — the amount to rebuild the same structure in the event of a total loss, according to the association.

While homeowners insurance is not required in Maine, banks that hold the mortgage on homes do require it, said Deb Trowbridge, a customer service agent with Wheeler Insurance in Paris.

If a homeowner with a mortgage is unable to pay for insurance, mortgage companies will “force placement” and purchase insurance on behalf of the owner to ensure the bank gets its money back in case of a fire or other damage, Trowbridge said.

Renters insurance is for anyone who rents an apartment, condo or house, according to information from the National Association of Insurance Companies. The policy provides protection for personal property, such as furniture, electronic equipment and clothing. It also provides liability protection for the renter should they negligently injure someone or damage that person’s property. The landlord or the owner of the property is only responsible for insuring the building and for his/her own liability coverage.

Affordability of insurance

Last year, Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration said Maine’s homeowners insurance rates are the lowest in New England and among the lowest in the country.

The Maine Bureau of Insurance also points to reports from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners that show Maine’s average premium is among the most affordable.

The National Association of Insurance Companies ranks Maine as 11th nationally in affordable homeowners’ insurance premiums.

But affordability remains the primary reasons homeowners give for lack of insurance.

“I know there is a percentage of homeowners who do cancel their insurance because of the premiums being paid,” Trowbridge said.

Many factors determine the premium a homeowner will pay, including the distance from your home to a fire hydrant or fire department, according to the National Association of Insurance Companies. If a person rents, lives in a condo, or lives in a manufactured (or mobile) home that isn’t on a permanent foundation, the choices may be different. Many mobile homeowners in various parts of the country such as Florida, where hurricanes are prevalent, can not find home insurance.

Norway Fire Chief Dennis Yates said he does not keep statistics on how many homeowners do not have fire insurance but it is not uncommon.

In fact, his proposal at last year’s annual town meeting to construct a substation in North Norway was initiated, in part, when a homeowner came to him to discuss the high cost of home insurance and whether additional fire safety would help reduce those costs.

Each homeowner’s insurance rates are defined by a number of factors, including availability of hydrants, but the proximity of a home to a fire station is a known factor, he said. Yates told voters that a fire station within five miles or less of a home could reduce homeowner’s insurance costs.

Yates used as an example a home assessed at $190,000 in the north end of town, which is considered a Zone 10. The homeowner is paying $891 annually for homeowner’s insurance because the house is outside of the five-mile range of a fire station set by ISO. The organization studies property/casualty insurance risks that insurance companies may use when setting rates.

If a substation was sited in the north end of town, that home could be pushed into Zone 4, which could reduce the homeowner’s insurance rates to about $500.

While folks like the Rimans have a good support system through family, friends and their community, when a fire consumes their property, not all are so lucky.

Otisfield Selectmen have become so concerned about the devastating loss of homes in the small town of 1,800 — where three families who have been burned out of their homes in recent months — that they have established a site on the town’s webpage for donations.

The problem, they say, is not only for those who are uninsured, but to help those who have insurance but must wait for months to receive financial help.

“We need to bridge that gap,” Board of Selectmen Chairman Hal Ferguson recently said.

“(Fire victims) are already emotionally wrought,” he said. “They don’t need to worry about how they’re going to put food on the table.”

The Rimans are now receiving help through family, friends, their church, the community at large and a GoFund Me account, where his 9-year-old granddaughter donated a month’s allowance and the ring bearer at his wedding 40 years ago donated money, among dozens of others.

The couple are looking for a long-term rental now.

They will get renter’s insurance, Riman said.

“Darn right. My wife is 64 and I am turning 64 and we’re starting off from scratch. It’s an interesting thing to do,” Riman said.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net