Wildfires burn over 7 million acres of wildland every year. That’s a lot of land burned and the fires only don’t stick to wildlands. They often destroy cities, towns, and rural residential areas. Who is liable for the wildfires? According to the Insurance Information Institute, humans cause more than 85 percent of wildfires. Sometimes the cause of a wildfire is a malfunctioning power line or the power company did not maintain trees near power lines.
California saw 9,280 wildfires that damaged 2,233,666 acres in one recent year. If a wildfire burns your home and you can prove that someone is liable, you could recover damages from the person or company. In many cases, power companies admit when their power lines cause wildfires. The most destructive wildfire in California was the Camp Fire. Powerlines caused this fire, which burned 153,336 acres and 18,804 structures. It also killed 85 people.
When a Utility Causes a Wildfire
If you suffered losses because of a wildfire started by a utility company, you usually have to file a lawsuit to recover damages. In many cases, the courts consolidate the cases since you are likely not the only family that suffered losses. The courts refer to this type of claim as a mass action claim. The plaintiffs litigate their claims together as one claim that way, the court only has to hear the evidence once. However, each person affected by the wildfire must be able to prove that he or she suffered damages to be included in the mass action.
When choosing an attorney, ensure the attorney has experience handling mass claims, as they differ from class action claims.
The Effect of Wildfires on Your Home or Business
If a wildfire even gets close to your home, it could cause extensive damage.
While your house or business might not burn if the wildfire doesn’t quite reach it, it could still sustain:
- Heat and burn damage. Even when the fire doesn’t touch and burn your home, it creates so much heat that structures could melt, especially with vinyl siding. Even homes with wood or stone siding could suffer damage when window and door sills melt. If the fire is hot enough, it could damage windows.
- Even when you think the fire can’t get to your home, the house may burn. All it takes is for one member to find its way in through a crack. If it lands on a carpet, clothing, or other material that burns easily, your house could burn quickly sometimes too quickly for firefighters to get there.
- Smoke and soot damage. If you’ve ever used a fire pit over a long period of time, you know that soot and smoke stick to everything, including you. After sitting by the fire for a few hours, your clothes and hair smell like smoke. Imagine what a hot wildfire can do to your home inside and out. In addition to the smoke, your home becomes covered with soot. Like dust, it finds its way inside, too. It will destroy ductwork, furniture, ceilings, walls, flooring, curtain, and more.
- Water damage. If firefighters are fighting the fire, they could douse your house with water, even if it’s not on fire. The hope is that a wet home won’t catch fire if the fire is that close. And, if it happens to rain and the fire damages the exterior of the structure, rain could make its way inside and cause water damage.
- Mold damage. Water doesn’t just destroy things by getting them wet. It also causes mold, which is dangerous to your health. Mold can form within 24 hours. It also spreads quickly. If you can’t get to your home and start airing it out and cleaning it within 24 hours, you can expect to deal with mold in the walls and on your belongings. Your best bet is to hire a mold remediation company. If you try to remove the mold yourself and do not get it all, it will continue growing.
Once you can get into your home, you must document the damage to the interior and exterior. Even if you can’t see mold forming, take pictures of water damage. You will need this evidence to recover damages from the person or entity that started the fire or your homeowner’s insurance company.
Homeowner’s Insurance Coverage of Wildfire Damage
First, wildfire coverage depends on your homeowner’s insurance. If it does cover wildfire damage, it does not provide enough to cover everything. Many homeowners find that the cost of rebuilding their home plus costs for personal property, landscaping, post-fire erosion, and replacing large trees and native vegetation is often more than what the insurance will cover.
After a wildfire destroys native vegetation and large trees, your property will most likely suffer from erosion. The large tree roots and vegetation keep the property from eroding, flooding, mudslides, and landslides. It can be very expensive to replace the vegetation and trees and clean up the erosion.
Even residential landscaping is expensive to replace as a homeowner most likely added to the outdoor living space over a span of time. To replace it all at once runs into significant expense, especially with year-over-year price increases. If you have photos of the landscaping before it burned, you could recover compensation to replace the landscape and the resulting property value diminution.
Mature tree replacement could cost up to $50,000 per tree, depending on the type and size. Damages like this are “underinsured damages.” In addition to underinsured damages, you probably have some uninsured damages, such as attorney’s fees and costs and annoyance damages.
The only way you can recover underinsured and uninsured damages is to prove fire damaged the property. Thus, you should always have photos of what your home and property looked like before the damage, especially valuable trees on the property.
Farmers often do not insure their crops. Thus, when a wildfire destroys the crop, the farmer and the community that relies on the farmer suffer a huge financial blow. If the farmer has a fruit orchard, it takes years for new fruit trees to mature and bear fruit. These farmers don’t just lose out for the current year they lose for a decade or longer.
A wildfire attorney can help a farmer claim compensation for these losses, including losses in future years if the fire department or state can determine who started the wildfire.
Structures and Updated Codes
Many homeowners believe their insurance company will pay enough to rebuild a home and outbuildings. However, homeowners often do not receive enough to cover outbuildings because they are already underinsured because of updated codes or uninsured outbuildings.
For example, if you have a 10-foot by 20-foot outbuilding that holds your riding mower, lawn tools, and pool tools, but never notified the insurance company of its existence, you could be out thousands of dollars in compensation.
Updated codes cause building new to be more expensive. Thus, if a contractor built your home in 1975, it was code-compliant and grandfathered into today’s code. However, you cannot rebuild the exact home and floor plan for the same amount including an adjustment for inflation and valuation for the same money because of the updated codes.
In addition to your regular mortgage, you’ll have to pay to live elsewhere until your home is cleaned up or rebuilt. You’ll also incur costs for eating out. Hotel and restaurant costs, transportation, supplies, and pet boarding are expenses you would not have had if not for the wildfire. Often homeowner’s insurance likely won’t pay enough to cover all these expenses.
Other expenses your insurance does not cover include the annoyance and discomfort you go through after losing everything because of a wildfire. It is inconvenient at best to live in a hotel. On top of that, you probably lost irreplaceable family heirlooms and mementos. The only way to recover compensation for these damages is to file a claim against the person or entity that started the wildfire.
What a Wildfire Attorney Can Do to Help
After a wildfire, we retain real property appraisers, landscape architects, local arborists, construction estimators, and other professionals to determine the total extent of the losses your homeowner’s insurance does not cover.
The attorney determines if a person or entity started the fire, investigates your claim, and prepares a lawsuit to claim the compensation you deserve.
How Soon Do I Have to Contact a Wildfire Attorney?
Because the courts often combine wildfire cases, it is best to contact a wildfire attorney as soon as possible. When you come in for a free case evaluation, it will help to bring photos of the fire damage and photos of the way your property looked before the fire. The more detailed the photos, the better it is to determine the compensation you deserve, as we can see the mature trees, landscaping, and the items destroyed inside the home. Always take photos of jewelry and other valuables that might be left behind.
I Have Not Suffered Damage in a Wildfire Yet. How Do I Protect Myself if a Fire Burns My Home and Property?
First and foremost, get out as quickly as possible.
To make it easier for you to get out:
- Create an evacuation plan. You should know what you are taking with you and have it ready, e.g., clothing, water, and important photos. You should also plan at least two routes to get out in case one becomes blocked.
- Keep all important documents, such as birth certificates, social security cards, marriage licenses, death certificates, estate planning documents, and other vital records, in a small, portable safe box that is easily accessible. It can be in a larger safe or the back of a filing cabinet—it just has to be where you can easily get to it so you can grab it and run.
- Make sure you have pet crates that are easily accessible so you can get your pets in the crates and in the vehicle in the shortest amount of time possible. For larger dogs, be sure to have leashes and collars easily accessible—always keep them in the same place.
- Make sure your roof and gutters are clean of debris.
- Cut branches back so they are at least six feet away from your roof.
- Keep combustible vegetation at least 100 feet from your house. If you live on a small lot, keep combustible vegetation cleared to the property boundary lines. You do not need to remove mature native trees unless they are unhealthy or dead.
- Remove all juniper and bamboo within 100 feet of your home, as this type of vegetation is combustible.
- If your home does not have a fire-resistant Class A roof, which is required for remodels and new construction, consider replacing the roof this year.
- Cover all vents with 1/8-inch wire mesh.
- Caulk and repair any cracks in the house’s rafters, siding, eaves, and other openings.
- Seal all doors and windows with weatherstripping to help prevent embers from getting inside.
- Update windows to multipane windows and tempered glass.
- Remove any combustibles on and under decks and porches.
- Work with the entire community to maintain any forest areas in your neighborhood.
Do not turn on the sprinklers. If everyone does this, it reduces water pressure and could use up all the water that firefighters need to fight the fire before it gets to your house. Additionally, the sprinklers will not help much if the fire is close to your house—and you should evacuate well before then, anyway.
Contact a wildfire attorney if your home burned or sustained damage because of a wildfire. If firefighters or a government agency determines who started the fire, you could seek compensation for damages for items your homeowner’s insurance does not cover or for underinsured items.