Nearly 80 million properties and 1 in 6 Americans are exposed to wildfire risk, according to an analysis of data by the nonprofit First Street Foundation. Homeowners may not realize they could be in a high-risk area and are therefore unaware of the precautions they should take or how to prepare for a possible insurance claim after a fire.
We asked for advice from Joe Gilmartin, a franchise owner of Goosehead Insurance in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and Eric Lindbloom, assistant vice president of operations for Property Damage Appraisers in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Both responded by email. The following was edited for length and clarity.
Q: What can homeowners do if they’re in a high-risk area for fire to protect their homes?
Lindbloom: Simple steps that wouldn’t require costly updates to the home can include regular cleaning and removing debris from the gutters, reducing the likelihood of catching fire. To help emergency responders identify your property, installing high visibility house numbers is another low-cost option.
Homeowners can also plan ahead by ensuring all flammable vegetation is removed from 30 feet surrounding the home and sealing all exterior wall gaps with fire resistant caulk, mortar or fire-protective expanding foam. More information for homeowners is on FEMA’s website.
Gilmartin: There are several things that you can do to help protect your home if you are in a fire hazard area:
• Clear outgrowth and brush around your immediate home that could contribute to the spread of a fire
• Create a defensible area of 30 to 100 feet around your home. If you live on a hillside, clear out or thin out particularly highly combustible shrubs and trees such as eucalyptus trees, creosote bushes, junipers, pine, etc.
• Don’t store firewood or other combustible materials within 30 feet of your home.
• Cover exterior attic vents and under-eave vents with metal wire mesh no larger than 1/8 inch to keep embers out. This is a major issue as those embers often find their way in and rapidly catch fire due to the insulation burning quickly.
• A nonflammable roof made of asphalt clay tile or concrete slate will help. Wood shake roofs are extremely flammable and should look to be replaced in high-fire areas. For those more affluent homeowners, they can contract to have their home sprayed with sealer material that is fire retardant.
The Office of the State Fire Marshal in California offers helpful tips to prepare for wildfire risk.
Q: Is a special insurance policy or endorsement needed for wildfire coverage?
Lindbloom: You should always review your policies and seek the guidance of an agent or insurance professional when needed. Companies may have different language in their policies excluding coverage for fire or smoke from wildfires.
A recent trend regarding wildfires is companies offering “wildfire defense systems” or “wildfire protection” endorsements. These endorsements, when offered, will help you prepare and protect your home from wildfires. If you are in a high-risk category you may need to look at Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan insurance. Most states will have some form of a FAIR Plan to get coverage. Contact your state’s Department of Insurance for information.
Gilmartin: Fire, regardless of whether it’s caused by a wildfire, electrical factor or an accident, is covered. That said, if a home is in a very tough area to write a policy, due to wildfire risk, you will have to search for insurance through the excess and surplus lines (nonadmitted carriers in the state). As a last resort, there is also the FAIR Plan, which is a policy designed to provide fire insurance for consumers in high-risk areas. It can be extremely costly, limited on coverages and must be accompanied by a supplemental plan to provide coverage for all the major perils that most traditional carriers offer.
Q: What should homeowners do to prepare ahead of time in case they must file a claim for smoke or fire damage?
Lindbloom: Before any loss, create a full inventory of the items you have in the house, including any documentation for more expensive items. You can do this by taking photographs, videos or using an app. If you have made any updates to your home, be certain to document these updates through photos or videos as well.
Make certain you have your policy information available. You can photograph your policy information and save it on your phone or download the insurance company’s app if they have one. Having this information readily, available along with contact phone numbers for the insurance company or your agent, will make it much easier when you must present a claim.
Gilmartin: It would be wise to keep your homeowner policy information as well as the contact information for your insurance agent or claims call center handy for easy access. I suggest the same for your auto insurance policy, as the cars may be damaged if a fire occurs and they are parked in the garage.
It’s also important to understand what you as a consumer are entitled to if you are forced to leave your home. Your policy typically covers you for additional living costs if you’re out of the home due to fire or fire-related repairs. Be sure to talk to your agent so you are familiar with how your policy works and so that you have adequate coverage.
I also recommend that my clients have a good idea of what they have in their homes. You may want to pack a traveling box with important papers like birth certificates, passports and Social Security cards.
Q: What steps should homeowners take if they need to file a claim after a fire? Whom do they contact and what information do they need to provide?
Lindbloom: Contact the insurance company as soon as you can following a loss. If you saved your information on your phone or have the insurance company’s app, you will be able to call or, in some cases, submit your claim via the app. Even if you do not have your policy information readily at hand, still call and make a claim. Most insurance companies will be able to access your policy information based on the property address.
Many insurance companies will utilize a housing service to find you temporary housing through a rental property or hotel. You can also find properties yourself, but make certain you are fully aware of your coverages and any limits that may apply to your “loss of use” coverage.