How to Protect Yourself and Your Home Against Wildfires

Plus: Does Your Homeowners Insurance Cover Wildfire Damage?

wildfires in southern california

Ever used the expression “spread like wildfire?” Fire is an incredible force of nature, and while it has its uses (light and heat are pretty sweet IMHO), it can also cause severe and irreparable damage. Some wildfires are ignited by natural causes such as lightning strikes, but as many as 90 percent are caused by humans. So considering the impact wildfires can have, as well as their often unpredictable origins, it’s not surprising many people fear for their lives, their families, and their homes when wildfires begin to rage.

The frightening truth is that the threat of wildfire is an ever-present concern for people in many parts of the country, most often in regions where high winds and drought create perfect conditions for wildfires to burn. The good news is that if you live in a region prone to wildfires, there are a number of things you can do to reduce the risks to your home. And if a fire does break out near your home, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with our tips for how to prepare for the worst.

How Big is the Problem?

Wildfires occur every year, and evidence suggests the risk of wildfires is increasing.

According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), in the first six months of 2017 there were 30,998 wildfires in the US, up from 27,024 wildfires for the first half of 2016. In this period, fires burned 3.1 million acres in 2017, a significant increase over the 2.3 million acres that burned in early 2016.

Why the increase? According to the US Department of the Interior, a major factor in the escalation of wildfires is climate change. Globally, over the past 10 years temperatures have risen 1.9 degrees. Mountain snow now melts as much as a month sooner, giving landscapes increased time in the spring and summer to dry up. Extended droughts are turning forested land into kindling, and creeks, rivers, and lakes are drying up. Other factors include expanded development into desert or other arid locations, and fewer controlled burns of undergrowth.

III reports that the states with the most households in danger from wildfires are:

  1. California
  2. Texas
  3. Colorado
  4. Arizona
  5. Idaho

However, just because you don’t live in one of those states, don’t assume you’re safe. Wildfires can happen anywhere, as the people of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada discovered in 2016, when a massive wildfire destroyed 1,600 buildings and devastated their community. Forests, wooded hillsides, grasslands, and even urban parks can become a tinder box when the conditions are right.

So how can you protect yourself and your home against wildfire damage?

home insurance for house fire

Step 1: Home Insurance for Wildfires – Are You Covered?

The Zebra’s licensed insurance agent Neil Richardson weighs in on what you need to know:

Is wildfire damage to your home covered? Yes.

Most homeowners insurance and renters insurance policies consider fire to be a covered peril, whether it’s started inside the home or out. Even so, it’s always best to ask your insurance provider about how your specific policy would apply to wildfires, and if you should increase your coverage so you have enough funds to start over if the worst happens.

Are hotel expenses covered if you can’t return to your damaged home? Maybe.

In the event you cannot return home after a wildfire has passed, Neil suggests you check your home insurance policy to make sure it provides “loss of use” or “additional living expense” coverage. This coverage pays for food and hotel stays while your home is being repaired.

Neil recommends you also consider whether the amount of coverage paid out is sufficient to cover the time you’re forced to be away from home. Since the payment will be based on a percentage of the policy’s dwelling coverage, you might need more coverage than you think. Make sure your policy will cover the cost of a hotel stay and food for you and your family for a month or longer. Keep in mind that if you’re trying to recover from a major disaster it could be months before your home is fixed because of the number of other residents also trying to rebuild.

Check with your agent about your coverage and discuss your options for increasing your coverage if necessary.

Are home insurance rates higher in wildfire zones? Likely.

If you’re considering a move into an area that may experience wildfires in the future, keep in mind that insurance is all about risk. If there’s a spike in wildfires or similar events, insurance rates are likely to climb, and you might find fewer companies offering coverage. Get the right coverage from a reputable company from the start so you don’t have to worry later on.

expensive home repairs wildfire damage

How to Arm Your Home Against Wildfires

Hopefully wildfires will never reach your neighborhood, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. To protect your home in wildfire-prone regions, here are a few tips from the Colorado State Forest Service:

  • Be sure your house’s exterior offers fire protection. There are options for roofing, siding and other elements of your home that can reduce the chances of it catching fire from stray embers. In some cases, these precautions have allowed homes to remain standing while all the houses around them burned.
  • Create a ‘defensible space’ around your home by removing vegetation and other flammable objects. The CSFS offers a checklist for creating a defensible space for your home.
  • Make sure your home is easily located and accessed by firefighters. Good signage at the street is essential.
  • Ensure your home has portable fire extinguishers. You might be able to prevent a wildfire from starting on your own property.

What to Do When Wildfires Approach

If there’s a fire in your area, it’s important not to panic.

Keep a close eye on the news issued by your local National Weather Service office as well as state or city officials, who will issue regular reports on the state of the fire and areas affected. Your local sheriff’s office usually will be the agency to coordinate evacuations.

Before fire comes knocking, the National Park Service offers these suggestions:

  • Charge all cell phones, and have portable battery chargers and car chargers for each model.
  • Decide upon a meeting place ahead of time where your family can gather if you get separated or phone service is down.
  • Find out how evacuation notices will be communicated, and make sure you have a phone that can accept reverse 911 calls or ask a neighbor to keep you informed.
  • Pack emergency supplies for yourself and every member of your family. This will include a change of clothing, medications, important documents, blankets, flashlights, and anything else you might need if you can’t return home.
  • Prepare cat carriers, dog crates, leashes, etc. for all of your pets. Pack bowls for food and water as well as a supply of their usual food and their medications. The Red Cross offers a pet emergency preparedness plan with even more suggestions.
  • As soon as you hear about a fire, be sure to pack up family heirlooms, computers, and other items you want to take, so you don’t waste time getting it all together once the evacuation order comes down. (If the fire is at your door, forget all stuff – get yourself out of there.)

Other emergency preparedness tips to consider:

  • Keep your car’s gas tank full and make sure your car has an emergency kit. In the event of an evacuation, you may not have time to stop to refill your tank and there may be supply shortages.
  • Have a small amount of nonperishable food, snacks, and water ready. If you need to evacuate, it could be a while before you’ll have a chance to get a full meal.
  • During your evacuation, or if you’re fighting a blaze at your home, the CSFS suggests wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants and bringing gloves. Above all, do not wear anything made of synthetic fabrics, as the intense heat of a wildfire can melt your clothing.