Sometimes, people affected by wildfires don’t file insurance claims as they believe they do not qualify. If you fail to file a claim, you could be out a lot of money, depending on your coverage.
One thing you should do right now if you haven’t done it already is to review your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy with your insurance agent or broker and a California wildfire claim lawyer. If you have any questions about wildfire coverage, ask. You can increase the limits if you don’t think you have enough coverage or buy an additional or different policy if your insurance excludes wildfires.
Myth 1: Only Homeowners Can File Claims
This statement is abjectly false. Renters can also file claims against their renter’s insurance. Additionally, you can file a claim if you lost personal property and suffered health issues because of a wildfire. Always check with your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance about filing claims.
If you sustained losses because of a wildfire and your insurance company refuses to pay, an insurance attorney experienced in renter’s and homeowner’s insurance policies can review your case and state laws regarding payouts by insurance companies.
Myth 2: Only Insured People Can File Claims
Even if you don’t have renter’s or homeowner’s insurance, you might be able to recover compensation for your losses and personal injury. In many cases, investigators learn who started the fire. Sometimes, power companies’ equipment starts fires.
Whether the fire starter is an individual or entity, you could have a claim against the person or entity whether you have renter’s or homeowner’s insurance or not.
Myth 3: Insurance Companies Only Pay for Documented Losses
While this is a myth, know that it is easier to collect if you can prove your losses, especially for high-value items. You should always keep receipts for expensive personal property. Additionally, you should take photos of your personal property and keep a list to give to an insurance company or an attorney if you file a claim against an individual or entity.
Additionally, you do not have to itemize some items, such as a DVD collection, shoes, and clothing.
Myth 4: Only Those Who Suffered Injuries or Lost a Loved One to a Wildfire Can File
This is also another myth. If you lost personal property due to the wildfire, soot and smoke damage, or water damage, you could file a claim. Additionally, if the fire damaged your home, you can file a claim for compensation to rebuild. Renters do not recover compensation for the structure the landlord does. However, if you have renter’s insurance, you can recover compensation for the personal property damaged by fire, soot, smoke, or water.
Myths About Wildfires
In addition to people not realizing they can file claims for wildfires, some people are not ready for them. You can minimize losses and make claims easier with more knowledge about wildfires.
Myth 1: You Only Have to Worry About Wildfires in Summer
A wildfire could happen at any time. In fact, the risk of a wildfire is higher in the fall because it is the end of the dry season. The fall winds that come onshore can carry an ember quite far, then deposit it in a dry wooded area. These winds fan the hot ember into flames and then cause the wildfire to spread quickly.
Myth 2: You Cannot Protect Your Property from a Wildfire
You might not be able to completely stop an out-of-control wildfire, but you can certainly reduce the risk by taking steps to protect your home, including trimming tree branches away from the house. You should also trim the lower branches so they are six to ten feet above the ground.
Clearing brush, wood piles, dried leaves, and other debris from 100 feet from your home or at least to your property lines also reduces the risk of your home burning in a wildfire.
Other steps you can take include:
- Removing dead vegetation from under decks and porches.
- Box in the area under decks and porches with wire mesh.
- Keep propane tanks at least 30 feet from your home.
- Keep outbuildings at least 30 feet from your home.
- If your lawn is brown, cut it down to reduce the fire’s intensity. If you don’t have water restrictions, keep the lawn hydrated.
- Dispose of lawn cuttings and other debris immediately.
- Ensure your roof is fire-resistant. If you have missing shingles or tiles, replace them immediately.
- Keep all vents covered with wire mesh that is 1/8 inch or smaller to help prevent sparks from flying inside your home.
Myth 3: Only Those in Wildfire Zones Are at Risk
Your home is still at risk even if you are not in a wildfire zone. Embers can travel more than a mile and light combustible material in your yard. For example, if a hot ember lands on patio furniture cushions, it could start a fire. An ember could catch a wind draft and fly into your home through an open window, door, or vent.
Myth 4: My Home Will Not Catch Fire Unless the Fire Burns Right Up to the Structure
An errant ember caught on a wind gust can travel up to a mile from the fire. According to the National Fire Protection Association, embers are the primary cause of wildfires burning homes. Thus, keep the area around your home cleared of combustible material and put wire screening around decks, porches, and vents.
Combustible material includes leaves, piles of wood, mulch, pine needles, and patio furniture cushions.
Myth 5: The Fire Department Will Protect My Home During a Wildfire
While the fire department does protect and save many homes, it is impossible if a wildfire is so big and has such intensity that the fire department doesn’t have the resources to protect everyone’s home. Always assume that the fire department can’t save your home if it’s in the path of a wildfire.
Even when several fire departments deploy to an area ravaged by a wildfire, they could still run out of resources. For example, the Camp Fire killed 85 people and burned 19,000 buildings even though firefighters from all over California and Washington battled the flames.
Myth 6: I Only Need to Keep My Yard Free of Combustibles During the Summer
You should always keep your yard free of combustibles year ‘round, as a wildfire could head your way at any time during the year, especially in the fall, which is right after the dry season and the time when winds come onshore.
How to Make the Claim Process for a Wildfire Easier
You can file a wildfire damage claim through your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, or you can file a case against a person or entity to recover compensation for your losses and injuries.
Whether you go straight through the insurance company or retain an attorney to help you file an insurance claim or file a claim against the person or entity that started the fire, you can make the process easier and quicker.
- Have a complete copy of your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy, including the declarations page. Scan the document into a secure cloud account so you have access to it if you don’t remember to take it with you when you evacuate.
- Understand how much coverage you have. You should know how much the insurance will pay to repair or rebuild your home or if you have to rebuild in the same place. You should also know how much the insurance pays for personal belongings and for additional living expenses.
- Keep track of your additional living expenses. You have 24 months to collect additional living expenses after a “declared catastrophe.” You can request up to 12 additional months as long as any delays are out of your control. If you have to live farther away from your home and work, you could recover compensation for additional mileage and higher rental rates.
- Keep a separate claim diary where you can document all conversations with insurance agents, representatives, and adjusters. If an insurance adjuster states that certain items are not covered, ask him or her to point it out in your policy.
- Before a wildfire happens, have at least one contractor give you an estimate to rebuild your home. That way, you’ll know whether your insurance is going to be enough or if you need to increase your limits. Never rely on an insurance company’s estimate they are in the business of insuring items, not building them.
- Know that you can purchase or rebuild in another location, and you can use a contractor of your choice.
When you are working with attorneys and insurance companies, never rush into a decision, regardless of how pushy the insurance company is. Always take several factors into consideration when making a decision, including your finances, current mortgage, schools for the children, your age, and how willing you are to deal with construction issues.
Additionally, when you are ready to rebuild, always obtain at least three estimates. You don’t always have to choose the cheapest contractor, but price should be one of the factors you look at when choosing someone.
If you feel out of your zone, always consider retaining an attorney to help. Keep in mind that insurance companies are in business to make money, and paying claims cuts into their profits. Finally, never assume that you don’t have enough coverage based on what people around you say.
Each year, you should check with your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance to ensure you have enough coverage. Even if you don’t add anything of value to your home or personal effects, the value of some items could increase enough so that you might have to increase your insurance limits.
Create an Emergency Plan
In addition to uploading a copy of your insurance policy to a secure cloud account, upload an inventory list of your personal property and photos to the cloud account.
If you create an emergency plan, you can also get out faster during an evacuation and are less likely to forget the items you need.
- Keep all vital records and insurance policies in one place and make them easy to grab and throw in a bag or suitcase.
- Keep all medications and something to carry them in one place, so all you have to do is swipe them into a bag and leave.
- Locate and drive at least two evacuation routes, especially if you are not familiar with parts of the route. Know where the routes are so you don’t have to backtrack if the fire is blocking one of them.
- Keep an extensive first aid kit in your vehicle.
- Keep a survival kit in your vehicle. You should have at least two liters of water for each person, a change of clothing, blankets, and non-perishable snacks. If you get stranded in traffic or on a rural road, you’ll have food and water for the night.
- If you have room in the vehicle, pack an extended survival kit that is ready to throw in the car at the last minute. It should include everything in the survival kit plus extra water and food, a tarp or tent (if you are in a rural area), and extra cash for hotels and restaurants. Keep in mind that if the location you choose is close enough to a wildfire, the town may not have the power necessary to run credit card machines.
- While wildfires can hit at any time, you should always keep your escape vehicle topped off with fuel during the riskiest times of the year—summer and fall.
If you suffered losses or injuries from a wildfire, contact a homeowner’s or renter’s insurance attorney to help file claims. You could also benefit from filing a lawsuit for items your insurance doesn’t cover if authorities can determine who started the fire.