Before, During and After a Wildfire

(How to protect your assets through every stage of the blaze)

Tomas Fire Santa Barbara, California

You’ve worked hard as a homeowner to protect your assets from everyday disasters, both obvious and hidden. Unfortunately nothing’s prepared you for the moment you see a wildfire warning on the news. 

While panicking is easy (and understandable), it’s way more efficient to get motivated and start taking necessary precautions before the flames rise. This includes double-checking your insurance.

Impending wildfires would freak anyone out, but having a checklist ready to go before things get crazy can seriously soothe those nerves. That’s why we’ve compiled this go-to guide of what to do before, during, and after a wildfire to ensure your personal safety and make sure your assets are in order as much as possible. 

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We’ll start from the beginning, with making sure you’ve got adequate coverage.

Before the Wildfire: Check Your Coverage

Before the wildfire approaches, you’ll need to make sure your home is adequately protected. Your independent insurance agent can help answer any questions or concerns you have about your coverage. For starters, if you’ve got standard homeowners insurance, you’ve more than likely got at least some coverage for wildfires.

Work with your independent insurance agent to review your insurance coverage to be sure of the following:

  • You have adequate coverage: A standard homeowners policy provides coverage for “hostile” fire, including wildfires. It covers both the structure of your home and your belongings for fire and smoke damage, as well as water damage caused while extinguishing the fire. However, folks who live in high-risk areas for wildfires (such as California) may be required to purchase additional fire insurance, or be required by their insurance company to take extra precautionary measures (such as creating a safety perimeter around the home by trimming trees/shrubs and laying down stone or gravel, moving any propane tanks and wood piles away from the home, and fireproofing the home) in order to qualify for reimbursement under their homeowners policy.
  • Your policy limit is high enough: Wildfires can cause hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to homes, especially if they burn completely to the ground. You’ll need to review your homeowners policy to make sure you have enough coverage for wildfire damage, and if not, you may need to buy more coverage on your homeowners insurance, or even purchase an additional fire policy. You’ll want to make sure your home is insured for 100% of its estimated replacement cost. You may also want to purchase additional coverage or special riders for valuable possessions, since homeowners policies usually place a limit on personal property coverage of 50%-70% of the home’s total insured value. However, certain types of personal property, like jewelry and collectibles, often have stricter coverage limits.
  • Your deductible will be exceeded: Your standard homeowners policy may have a deductible of $500 or $1,000, or it may be much higher. While it’s easy for fire damage to exceed that amount, you don’t want to get stuck paying more out of pocket than you can afford. Work with your independent insurance agent to hunt for a policy with a lower deductible if yours is too high. However, lower deductibles usually mean higher premiums, when it comes to insurance.
  • Your coverage is effective: Unless you’re a brand-new homeowner, your homeowners policy is most likely already in effect. Otherwise, it may take 30-90 days for your coverage to begin. Your independent insurance agent can help you locate your policy’s effective date, if you’re unable to.

Becoming familiar with your insurance coverage before a wildfire strikes is the most proactive way to prepare your estate for the disaster. If you’re confused by any aspect of your coverage, your agent can help you fill in the gaps.


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Before the Wildfire, Part II: Take Inventory and Secure Your Belongings

Having your insurance coverage all set to go is a great start, but it’s far from the only prep work necessary before an impending natural disaster. You’ll want to have a sense of your personal inventory and do your best to secure your home and belongings, as well as your family, from potential damage or harm.

Take the following action steps before the wildfire approaches to help secure yourself, your family, and your belongings:

  • Create a personal inventory: In order to itemize your possessions for an insurance claim, you’ll first need to have a record of your stuff and its value. Thanks to the Insurance Information Institute, you can easily create a home inventory list using their app called “Know Your Stuff,” which is free and user-friendly. If technology isn’t your thing, you can also use a home inventory worksheet provided by your insurance company. Knowing what stuff you have and what it’s worth before disaster strikes will be a  great help when the time comes to file an insurance claim.
  • Literally secure your belongings: During those precious hours before the wildfire approaches, do everything you can to secure your home and belongings. Trim trees and shrubs, remove dried leaves and branches from around your home, close doors and windows, cover vents, windows, and other openings with duct tape or plywood, turn off propane or natural gas, move flammable materials such as curtains and furniture away from windows, set a ladder to the roof against your house, set up and turn on sprinklers on the roof, turn on all interior lights for visibility in case of heavy smoke, turn off air circulating systems, bring lawn furniture and other loose property inside, move firewood away from the home, turn on your radio and/or TV and have a stash of extra batteries ready. You may also want to back up important documents electronically.
  • Grab supplies: Along with your news sources, you’ll want to gather (nonperishable) food, water, and other emergency supplies to keep with you in your safe location during the disaster. Extra batteries, a first aid kit, prescription medications, flashlights, and a basic toolbox are all recommended supplies to have on hand during wildfires.
  • Practice evacuating: Official government websites suggest planning and practicing an evacuation route well before a wildfire approaches. Have several backup routes in mind in case of road closures or barricades. Make sure to practice getting all your family members, including pets, out of the home as quickly as possible. You may even want to connect to someone out of state and make arrangements to stay with them temporarily, or at least ask them to be your emergency contact to keep tabs on you.

Having your home and belongings in order as much as possible and discussing emergency plans  before a wildfire ever approaches is the best way to ensure the safety of your assets and your family.

During the Wildfire: Stay Connected; Stay Safe

The Pagami Creek wildfire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota. It burned over 100,000 acres.

Once the flames are in sight, you’ve passed the preparation stage and it’s time to stay connected to live updates on the fire’s progress and location, as well as your local government’s specific orders. You’ll also need to find the most secure area for you and your family to wait out the wildfire.

Take the following action steps during the wildfire:

  • Stay connected: Download live weather apps to your phone, grab your TV/radio and extra batteries, and tune in to your local station to stay informed. Keeping up with live updates will allow you to follow evacuation instructions if and when they are given, as well as other emergency instructions dictated by your county.
  • Get to a secure location: Unless ordered to evacuate, remain in a safe interior room in your home, away from all external walls, doors, and windows. Bring the phone/radio/TV and your other emergency supplies with you.
  • Evacuate if necessary, otherwise stay put: If an evacuation order is issued, don’t wait, go immediately. However, if you’re trapped by unsafe conditions, remain in your home. Leave doors unlocked to allow firefighters and other rescue teams to enter.

If you don’t have to evacuate right away, you may want to take the time to gather important supplies or valuable items to take with you to your temporary residence before you leave. However, if you’re ordered to evacuate immediately, grab only the emergency supplies you put together originally and get on the road with your family ASAP.

After the Wildfire: Take Inventory and Secure Professional Estimates

Once you’ve survived the wildfire, it’s time to find out how much of your home survived along with you. Survey your home and belongings for damage or destruction, and then don’t hesitate to reach out to your agent. 

They’ll be able to tell you how long you have to file a claim along with an estimate of how long it’ll take the claim to process. They can also tell you if your insurance policy requires professional estimates for any necessary repairs.

In order to protect your home and belongings from further damage, you may need to make temporary repairs before you hear back from your insurance company. For any repairs you make yourself, be sure to save the receipts to submit along with your property damage claim. 

Just keep in mind that this amount will be factored in along with permanent repairs and may cause you to reach your policy’s limit faster. Save larger repairs for after you get the damage assessed.

When filing a claim following a wildfire, your insurance company will send you a proof of loss form to complete yourself, or they’ll send an adjuster to your home to assess the damage in person. 

There are some preparatory steps you can take before the adjuster visits to speed the process along. These action steps will also help you get the reimbursement you’re entitled to.

Take the following steps before your insurance adjuster visits your home:

  • Prepare your personal inventory list: Once the adjuster arrives, having a premade list of your damaged/destroyed property to give to them will help speed the process up. Don’t clean out or throw away any damaged/destroyed items before the adjuster visits. You can also really help to further document your damaged/destroyed property by taking pictures or a video to include with your inventory list.
  • Take inventory of any structural damage: Along with your damaged/destroyed personal property, you’ll also want to know the extent of the damage/destruction to your home’s structure. Be sure to include detached structures like sheds, garages, and pools as well. Your list should include minor damage like wall cracks or black marks from smoke, major destruction like shattered windows or missing sections of the home, and everything in between. You may also want to get your plumbing and electrical systems inspected. Your policy will probably reimburse you for this process.
  • Secure estimates from licensed contractors: Once you’ve identified the damage, you’ll want to get professional estimates for necessary repairs. Having itemized estimates from licensed contractors to send to your insurance company will speed along the claims and reimbursement process.
  • Make copies of all important documents: You’ll be giving a lot of important paperwork to your insurance company, but you’ll want to keep copies for yourself, too, for after your claims process. Keep a folder of copies of all receipts, estimates, inventory lists, etc. to help the process run as smoothly as possible.

Preparing as much as possible on your end before ever involving your insurance company will help you to receive the reimbursement you’re entitled to much faster. You’ll also be better equipped with your own knowledge of your home’s damage and what needs to be repaired/replaced.

If your home is damaged to the point of being temporarily uninhabitable following a wildfire, your homeowners insurance policy provides coverage for additional living expenses. 

This coverage includes reimbursement for things like hotel rooms and increased costs of food, laundry services, extra gas mileage, and more. Additional living expenses coverage allows homeowners to maintain their normal lifestyle while in a temporary residence.

After the Wildfire, Part II: File Insurance Claims

Most homeowners insurance companies require you to file a claim within one year of a natural disaster like a wildfire. You may also need to file an auto insurance claim if your vehicle was damaged by the wildfire. Depending on your auto insurance company, the process for filing a claim, as well as what’s required from you, may vary.

If you’re unsatisfied with the estimates your insurance adjuster provides for reimbursement and are unable to reach an agreement with them, you can dispute their findings and send your proof of loss form, along with the payment amount you’re requesting, directly to the insurance claim examiner. 

The insurer will then review your claim and accept it or issue a denial.

If you dispute your insurer’s denial, you may submit an amended proof of loss form back to the claim examiner to try again to receive the amount you’re requesting, submit a formal appeal to your insurance company, or file a lawsuit against your insurer. Lawsuits must be filed within one year of the original denial.


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How To Find the Best Homeowners and Fire Insurance

In order to get the protection you need (and deserve), you’ll want to work with a trusted expert. Independent insurance agents will not only know where to find the best coverage and price, but also help to make sense of the fine print.

Consider your unique needs, then connect with an agent to help you take it from there. Have a list of your specific concerns and desires handy before you reach out, to help the process run even more smoothly.

Compare Homeowners and Fire Insurance Quotes with an Independent Insurance Agent

We all know how valuable your time is, so why spend it doing all the hard work yourself? From homeowners and fire insurance to special add-on policies, our expert independent insurance agents will help you determine which types of coverage make the most sense for you and your home. 

Our independent insurance agents stay on top of the insurance industry and all the latest discounts so you don’t have to. That means they’ll help find the right coverage at the right price for you.

They’re not just there at the beginning, either. If disaster strikes, your agent will be there to help walk you through the claims process and make sure you are getting the benefits you're entitled to. Now that’s thinking ahead.

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