In our Weather Watchers series, we provide advice to help you properly prepare for – and deal with – all different kinds of severe weather events.
Many of us remember Smokey Bear from decades past as the symbol of wildfire prevention, along with his famous catchphrase, “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.”
In 2001, the phrase was changed to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires,” making the campaign even more relevant today: Consider the devastating 2019 wildfire season, which saw over 7,860 California wildfires. And while some fires are unfortunately caused by humans, environmental factors are also often at play. No matter the cause, you’ll need to take important steps before, during and after a wildfire event in order to protect yourself – and your assets.
If you’re unsure whether you live in a high-risk area, you can find resources online, such as this interactive map, to help you make that determination. If you do live in a fire-prone area, sign up for your community’s warning system to get a heads up if and when a fire is headed your way. Know your community’s evacuation plans and practice evacuating so you’re comfortable navigating out of harm’s way. To that end, pick a destination ahead of time, such as a designated shelter site or a friend’s home outside of the impacted area.
Creating an emergency supply kit should also be on your to-do list. Supplies include everything from an N95 respirator mask to important medications for you and your family members (pets, too!). Speaking of family members, think through any special preparation needed for anyone who has mobility issues or medical issues like asthma and may require additional time evacuating or medical assistance if breathing becomes impaired.
If you don’t end up evacuating, you’ll need to create a safe space at home to wait out the fire. The best locations within your house are interior rooms that can be closed off from outside air.
Protecting your assets
While there’s a lot about wildfires you can’t control, you can do your best to make your home as unfriendly to fires as possible. This includes trimming brush, weeds and other potential fuels around your house, and storing grills, propane tanks or other flammable materials in a safe place. You can also discourage a fire from raging by closing doors and windows and filling your sinks, tubs and other containers with water. Don’t forget to shut off natural gas, propane and fuel oil supplies.
You’ll also want to designate a “defensible space” — 30 to 100 feet from your home (at least 100 feet in California) — that will act as the front-line of defense for firefighters. This area should be regularly maintained by removing dead vegetation and brush.
Next, review your homeowners and renters insurance policies to ensure your policies fit your situation and needs. Check that your home is adequately valued and that your car has comprehensive coverage. Some insurers may require a separate wildfire deductible, so it’s crucial to understand what is and isn’t covered. The same goes for car insurance. While fires are usually covered by your auto policy’s comprehensive coverage, but double-check to be sure.
And don’t forget to conduct your insurance reviews well in advance of any potential fires. This is because most insurance companies will put timing restrictions on making changes to existing policies, like increasing protection or opening new lines of business. It might be helpful to create calendar reminders at the beginning of each year to check your insurance for any updates or changes that may impact your coverage.
When a fire is imminent, pay close attention to local alerts so you know the fire’s location and the latest evacuation instructions. If you’re ordered to evacuate, or voluntarily choose to do so, follow the protocol you set up during the “before” phase to ensure a safe and smooth departure.
If it’s deemed safe enough to stay home, you’ll need to protect yourself and others from smoke. Head to the designated “safe” rooms and use a portable air filter to keep the air in the room as clean as possible. Once settled, don your respirator masks and take any necessary asthma or respiratory medications to help with breathing. Avoid using anything remotely flammable, like candles, fireplaces, aerosol sprays and even vacuums.
Throughout the ordeal, pay close attention to your health. If you feel sick, don’t just brush it off as a normal side effect of smoke inhalation; seek medical attention right away.
Protecting your assets
Your No. 1 priority during a wildfire is to protect yourself and your family from harm. But if you have some time for last-minute house preparation, focus on what’s most important. This includes shutting off gas meters (if advised by local officials), turning off propane tank system valves, opening fireplace dampers, and wetting down a potentially combustible roof. Once those tasks are done, close all of your windows, vents, doors, blinds or noncombustible window coverings, and remove lightweight drapes or curtains completely.
It’s clear from the past few wildfire seasons that it’s extremely difficult to contain fires, and the slightest change in wind direction can wreak havoc on containment efforts. So, it’s important to stay away from your home until you’ve been given the official OK to return.
Once you do, proceed with caution. The Ready for Wildfire website has created a guide to staying safe when heading back home. Some key tips include:
- When driving to your property, check for any debris that may be a potential cause of harm or utility poles weakened by fire.
- Check the outside of your home for fire or fire damage, including hot embers in rain gutters, on the roof, under decks or in wood piles.
- Review the inside of your home for any destruction or live fires, and determine if phones, security systems and alarms are in working order.
- If you find any fire or fire damage, alert local authorities or utility companies.
Protecting your assets
After you’ve assessed any potential destruction to your home or car, you’ll need to document that damage before making a claim to your insurance company.
The Insurance Information Institute recommends contacting your insurer as soon as possible so an adjuster can visit your home and review the situation. The adjuster will likely ask for a “proof of loss” form, which includes questions about the type of damage incurred, dates of purchase and potential repair costs. The III suggests holding on to every damaged item until your insurance rep has made a claim report, in case anything needs to be double checked. And lastly, there may be a time limit on your claim, so check with your insurer so you don’t miss the window to file one.
It’s easy to feel helpless when it comes to wildfires, but with the right preparation (and Smokey Bear’s words of encouragement) you’ll be in fire-fighting shape.