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Should you defend your home against wildfire -- or be resigned to an insurance claim?

Wildfire season can bring lots of anxiety to homeowners, particularly in fire-prone parts of the country. That's why some residents and homeowner insurance companies are taking an active role in fighting fires.

In recent years, whole communities have been evacuated when major fires threatened residential areas in California, Montana and other Western states. While most people would never dream of ignoring official orders to evacuate, a small group of homeowners is deciding not to automatically their flee residences in the event of major fires.

Instead, these homeowners are choosing to remain in their homes--guarding against blowing embers, putting out small spot fires and generally taking precautions to prevent their houses from being destroyed.

wildfire insurance claimsThe practice is called "stay and defend," and it has its roots in firefighting policies that are common in Australia, where officials found nearly 30 years ago that it's often more dangerous to leave a home once a fire front approaches than it is to stay indoors. In 1983, during the "Ash Wednesday" brushfires in Australia, 75 people died trying to flee the flames.

Making hard decisions

More recently, the worst bushfire in Australian history--a 2009 event known as "Black Friday"--killed 173 people and led Australian officials to recommend overhauling, but not abandoning, "stay and defend." One change: Officials suggested issuing stronger, clear-cut warnings about the possibility of death if one chooses to remain behind to defend a home.

Little wonder, therefore, that in America the "stay and defend" concept is controversial and not widely utilized. But it does have its proponents.

One of them is Alan Tresemer, captain of the Painted Rock Fire Rescue Co. in the small rural Montana community of Alta. It has just 60 or so permanent families, but in the summer the local population swells to around 15,000 visitors.

"We were the first in the U.S. to take on the Australian style" of fire management, Tresemer says."We simply recognized that everybody needs to prep their property because many people get stuck there in a fire anyway.

Although people may intend to evacuate, backcountry roads can become impassible due to flames, fallen trees or other hazards, once wildfires strike.

Getting familiar with wildfires

Tresemer now works to educate homeowners about fire-safety measures. One event involves replicating fire conditions to allow homeowners to experience the powerful smell, sights and sounds of a major fire, along with the heat intensity one might feel.

"We want people to make informed decisions. And some people, after going through that program, say, 'I don't want to be around for that. I'm going to evacuate early.'"

No matter how much homeowner education may be done, some fire-safety experts oppose the "stay and defend" approach.

"We don't encourage it and we don't recommend it. We prefer that people leave and not try to stay and defend," says Marty Leavitt, president of the Fire Safe Council of San Diego County.

Still, Leavitt acknowledged "there may be occasions where people need to stay because they're forced to do so." Under such circumstances, he adds, homeowners need to understand the risks and be well prepared.

Regardless of whether you are evacuating well ahead of a fire or choosing to stay and defend your home, Leavitt and Tresemer both agree that you should make sure your home and evacuation routes are "defensible." Remember, if your dwelling suffers wildfire damage, the cost to insure it may rise.

To create a "defensible" space requires, at a minimum:

  • Moving anything flammable away from your home.
  • Practicing good vegetation management by removing, thinning or modifying ignitable shrubs, trees or plants located within 100 feet of your property.
  • Clearing all needles, leaves, dead wood and other items from your roofs and gutters.
  • Preparing and knowing an evacuation route.
  • Maintaining easy access to your property for emergency vehicles.

For those worried about valuables going up in smoke, Levitt suggests storing items in safe deposit boxes or storage centers.

"But to salvage your own life is far more important than to stay behind and try to protect your things," he says.

Leavitt adds that having home insurance can alleviate some worries. But too often, Levitt says, insurers refuse to offer insurance for residents in fire-ravaged regions.

Home insurance companies go on the defensive

Chubb Insurance Group sometimes fights the battle for its customers.

The insurance company is spreading the word about its Wildfire Defense Services, which are available to Chubb home insurance policyholders in 14 Western states.

With the free service, private firefighters will do everything from setting up water systems to hydrate a property to--as a last resort--applying flame-retardant gel to a home's vulnerable parts.

"We'll do whatever it takes to save a home," says Kevin Fuhriman, catastrophe manager for Chubb Personal Insurance.

Since the program launched in 2008, it's helped to save some 500 homes and prevented many millions of dollars in property losses, Fuhriman estimates.

Nevertheless, he adds that property owners "definitely have to take some ownership in mitigation exposure."

Homeowners "envision that in the event of a fire, they're going to have a couple of fire engines parked quickly in their driveway. But resources get depleted quickly," Fuhriman notes. "And with many fire companies, they're no longer willing to go to extreme risks with their men or their equipment where a homeowner hasn't taken any proactive steps."

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