Watching for wildfires: How to keep your assets (and yourself) safe

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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. After all, some of the worst fires in U.S. history were just in the last few years, such as the August Complex fire in California in 2020 which burned over a million acres or the Dixie Fire the following year that burned nearly a million more[1]. And of course, in 2023, fires in Eastern Canada led to unsafe air quality for much of the U.S. East Coast[2].

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 beforeduring and after a wildfire event in order to protect yourself – and your assets.  

Before the fire

Protect yourself 

If you 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[3]. 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 should include:

  • An N95 respirator mask
  • First aid kit
  • Important medications for your family
  • Water
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Non-perishable food

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.

Protect 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. 


Wildfire insurance checklist

  • 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.
  • Double check that wildfires are covered by your auto policy’s comprehensive coverage (usually the case).
  • 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. 

During the fire

Protect yourself 

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.
  • 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.

Protect 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:

  • Shut off gas meters (if advised by local officials)
  • Turn off propane tank system valves
  • Opening fireplace dampers
  • Wet down a potentially combustible roof
  • Close all of your windows, vents, doors, blinds or noncombustible window coverings
  • Remove lightweight drapes or curtains completely.

After the fire

Protect yourself 

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[4]. 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.

Protect 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[5]. 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.