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Prepare for a Wildfire and Home Insurance Claims

Homeowners Insurance, Insurance

Wildfires are getting bigger, and a growing number of people are living in their path.

In 2015, wildfires consumed a record 10.1 million acres in the U.S., according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That’s well above the 20-year annual average of 5.8 million acres.

And now more than 1.8 million homes in 13 Western states are at severe risk of wildfires, according to a 2016 analysis by CoreLogic, a global analytics company.

Getting prepared is essential if you live in an area at risk. You can protect yourself and your family by making sure you have enough insurance, maintaining your property to prevent damage and creating a family emergency response plan.

Review insurance for holes

Make sure you have enough home insurance or renters insurance. Here are some key questions to ask:

  • Is the home insurance dwelling coverage enough to rebuild the house if it burned to the ground? The amount you have now is probably too low if you’ve remodeled or expanded the house without adjusting the policy.
  • Does the home insurance policy cover upgrades to meet new building codes? Many standard home insurance policies don’t, but you can get that coverage by buying a “law and ordinance insurance” addition to the policy.
  • Do you have replacement cost or actual cash value coverage? Replacement cost coverage pays to repair or replace with similar quality materials or items. If your 5-year-old couch is destroyed, for example, the coverage will reimburse you for a brand new one. Actual cash value coverage pays out after deducting for depreciation; for instance, if your old couch burns, you’d be reimbursed for the value of a comparable used one.
  • Is the amount of personal property coverage on your home or renters policy enough to cover your belongings? A thorough home inventory should reveal whether you need to increase your personal property coverage.
  • What are the limits on the additional living expenses coverage? This part of a home or renters policy covers extra expenses you have while your home or apartment is rebuilt. The costs might include hotel bills and restaurant meals. The policy sets dollar and time limits. You can boost those limits by paying for more coverage.

Check your auto insurance as well. To cover damage from wildfires, the policy must include comprehensive car insurance. The policy will not cover car damage if you have only liability insurance.

Create a home inventory

Having an inventory of your belongings will make it easier to get reimbursed if you have to make an insurance claim. Use an app to get started, such as Know Your Stuff from the Insurance Information Institute.

Create a safe space around the house

Start with the house and work your way out, advises the National Fire Protection Association.

The roof: Clear leaves and debris from the roof and gutters. Replace or repair loose shingles and caulk any gaps. Consider replacing the roof if it’s made from flammable materials. The most vulnerable roofs are those made from untreated wood shakes or wood shingles. Choose roofing material with a Class A rating for fire resistance, such as asphalt fiberglass composition shingles or concrete or clay tiles.

Decks and porches: Wood, plastic and wood-plastic composite decking materials are all vulnerable to fire. But you can make your deck safer by keeping it clear of pine needles and leaves and by removing flammable items stored underneath.

Within 5 feet of the house: Avoid planting woody shrubs and junipers here. Use fire-resistant plants and rock instead. The National Fire Protection Association offers plant and landscaping suggestions for different areas of the country. Trim back any tree branches that hang too close.

Within 30 feet of the house: Remove portable propane tanks, firewood piles and dry or dead plants. Prune low branches of tall trees to 6 to 10 feet from the ground. Maintain your yard and keep it free of debris.

Get help from your insurance company

Your insurance company doesn’t want your home to burn down any more than you do. Many companies offer information online to help make your home safer.

Companies that serve people with expensive homes go extra steps. Chubb and Nationwide Private Client (a Nationwide Insurance company), for instance, will inspect your property and suggest how to make it safer. Both companies also contract with services to monitor wildfires and help protect customers’ homes that are under threat. As a wildfire approaches, the companies will send crews to do whatever they can to prevent damage, such as applying fire-blocking gel, setting up sprinklers and clearing areas of vegetation to create fire breaks. The services aren’t available in every state.

Make an emergency plan

  • Create an evacuation plan.
  • Map out several ways of getting out in case roads are blocked.
  • Decide on a meeting place outside of the area if family members get separated.
  • Make a “go bag” of emergency supplies that you can take if you have to leave quickly, advises the Federal Emergency Management Agency. You can find a list of supplies on the Department of Homeland Security’s Ready.gov site.

Keep your insurance documents handy

Set up an online account with your insurance company so you can get access to information easily. Keep hard copies of insurance policies and other important documents in a central spot so you can grab them in a hurry.

It’s a good idea to review your emergency plan and insurance every year. Contact your insurance company if you need to upgrade coverage or you have any questions.

Barbara Marquand is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: bmarquand@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @barbaramarquand.