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Wildfire Season: What Homeowners Need to Know

Samantha Kostaras

Insurance Writer

6 min. read

Every year, wildfires in the U.S. make headlines as people are driven from their communities, unsure whether they will have homes to return to. Federal officials have warned wildfires threaten to bring even more destruction, so homeowners should know how to prepare for, protect against, and recover from these natural disasters. California wildfires tend to command the most media attention, but there are many other states that can also be affected by this type of disaster.

Top States with High to Extreme Wildfire Risk

StateEstimated Properties at RiskStatePercentage of Properties at Risk
California2,019,800Montana29%
Texas717,800Idaho26%
Colorado371,100Colorado17%
Arizona237,900California15%
Idaho175,000New Mexico15%
Data as of September 2019, from Verisk Wildfire Risk Analytics, via Insurance Information Institute

Prepare – What to do before a wildfire

Wildfires can move quickly, so it’s important to plan ahead.

Prepare Your Family

Stay alert

Sign up for any wildfire alert system in your area to receive alerts directly to your phone. Many cities offer text and email alert systems, or use third-party platforms such as Nixle to allow people to sign up to receive emergency weather alerts, but you’ll want to check which system your local government uses.

Create an emergency plan

  • Assemble an emergency kit: Gather any supplies you’ll need during an evacuation into a bin or backpack that’s easy to access and carry with you. It is also a good idea to include copies of your insurance policies and other important papers you may need access to in or after an emergency.
  • Know your evacuation plan: Make sure you and your family have a plan for both where you will go and how you will get there in the event of an emergency. Keep in mind that during a wildfire evacuation, you’ll want to plan backup routes in case major roads are closed.
  • Consider your loved ones: When you’re planning for an emergency, make sure you take into account any of your family that might need more time or special accommodations if you are evacuated. Caring for pets, elderly family members, or loved ones with disabilities will require special preparation.

Prepare Your Home

Fireproof your home

It’s not possible to completely fireproof your home, but you can take steps to help make your home and property more resistant to spreading flames and flying embers.

  • Use Class A fire-rated roofing, if possible
  • Clear trees and bushes from the area around your house (about 30 feet)
  • Maintain your landscaping 
  • Regularly clean your gutters 
  • Invest in a fireproof safe to store important documents or treasured items

Insure your home

Typical homeowners insurance policies will cover losses from wildfire damages, but it’s important to make sure that you have enough coverage to protect the true value of your property. Many people don’t find out until it’s too late that they are underinsured.
Using Munich Re’s NatCatSERVICE tool, we found there was more than a $5.7 billion gap between the damage done by wildfires and the amount that was covered by insurance in 2018.

Tips to avoid some of the common gaps in wildfire insurance coverage:

  • Check your dwelling coverage: Understand how the insurance company will determine the value of your home. If you have an actual cash value policy, your home will be insured for its market value, while a replacement cost policy is designed to pay for the cost to rebuild your home. Keep in mind, in a post-wildfire market, rebuilding may be considerably more expensive so make sure to discuss proper coverage with your agent.  
  • Create a home inventory: It’s hard to understand just how much value all of the items in your home are really worth without taking an inventory. You may also need protection that goes beyond a traditional policy. John Bodrozic, co-founder of HomeZada, a digital home management platform, explains: “Most standard home insurance policies either have a cap on the reimbursement of high value items or exclude them altogether … These items need to be documented in a home inventory, and added as additional coverage to your standard policy.” 
  • Review your loss of use coverage: Loss of use, or additional living expenses (ALE) coverage, is used to pay for the extra expenses you’ll have if you are unable to use your home, such as dining out instead of cooking and rent on top of a mortgage payment. This coverage is typically a certain percentage of your dwelling coverage, but if you are in an area where you are at higher risk of a wildfire putting you out of your home for an extended period of time, it’s important to consider whether you have enough protection.

Protect – What to Do During a Wildfire

Your safety comes first in the event of a wildfire.

Protect Your Family

Stay up to date on the wildfire’s location and movement by watching or listening to local news, and by watching for alerts from your local government.

Understand the alerts 

  • Fire Weather Watch: If you’re in a “watch” zone, you are not in immediate danger, but your area is at heightened risk of a fire. 
  • Red Flag Warning: If you’re in a “warning” zone, that means your area is at high risk for a wildfire – be extremely careful not to create any sparks. You may be ordered to evacuate.

Prepare to evacuate

  • Make sure your emergency kit is easily accessible
  • Decide where you will go – the Red Cross offers an online tool to help you find the nearest disaster center

Evacuate 

If your area is evacuated, you need to follow your evacuation plan immediately. Not only will this help to keep you and your family safe, but it will also help by clearing the roads for emergency response vehicles. Remember, do not go back to an area until officials confirm that it’s safe.

Protect Your Home

Prepare your property

  • Turn off fuel supplies to your home such as natural gas, propane, or oil lines
  • If possible, spray water as much water as possible on your roof
  • Fill any available outdoor bins by hose, like garbage cans
  • Move furniture toward the middle of your house and close all windows

Recover – What to Do After a Wildfire

Once the worst of the disaster is over, you can start to move forward.

Check Your Home for Damage

When it is safe for you to return, you’ll want to inspect your home for damage carefully and with the power turned off. As you look for signs of damage, make sure you’re also on the lookout for sparks and embers that may still be hot – these debris could burn you.

Only use what is safe

  • Don’t use tap water until officials confirm it is safe
  • Throw away any food that has been exposed to smoke, floodwater, or ash
  • Confirm your propane or oil tank systems are working safely

How to file a wildfire homeowners claim

If you do find damage that will require you to file an insurance claim: 

  • Start the process quickly, reach out to your insurer as soon as you are out of danger 
  • Keep a list of damages (with pictures) and a record of communication with your insurer
  • Save any receipts for relevant purchases you make out of your own pocket

If you can’t go home

Wildfires can devastate entire neighborhoods, leaving homes too damaged to return to without repairs. This means you could be paying for a mortgage on a home while paying rent on a temporary living arrangement. The type of coverage included in your homeowners insurance that will help to cover this extra cost is ALE or additional living expenses. If you need to use this coverage, make sure you’re communicating with your insurance company and saving all of the receipts that you’ll seek reimbursement for. 

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