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Don't get burned before or after wildfires

Homeowners who live in areas susceptible to wildfires can protect themselves from the dangers the fires present, as well as what can happen to them after the threat has abated.

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In the last several years, many rustic regions have become popular homebuilding areas, placing more homeowners in danger of wildfires than ever before.

Here's what you can do to help protect your home from wildfires:

  • Prepare a defensible space of at least 30 feet around your home by clearing away the flammable vegetation and other combustible materials.
  • Replace native plants with fire-resistant landscaping. Consult your local nursery for the fire-safe plants that grow best in your region.
  • Space trees and shrubs at least 10 feet apart.
  • Remove branches within 10 feet of chimneys and roofs.
  • Cover the chimney with a non-flammable screen of one-half-inch or smaller mesh.
  • Remove dead vegetation, leaves, and other debris from roofs and gutters.
  • Stack firewood far away from anything combustible, including fences and outbuildings.
  • If you have a swimming pool, be prepared to use it as a fire-fighting tool by purchasing a pool pump.
  • Dead wood and dying trees should be removed.
  • Inventory all of your belongings and store the list in a safe place away from your home in the event fire strikes.
  • Prepare a family evacuation plan.

Unwelcome visitors

Many homeowners, who must repair or rebuild following wildfires or other catastrophes, have become the unsuspecting victims of home repair fraud.

“Scam artists have victimized our communities for far too long,” exclaims New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. “They have preyed on our residents one neighborhood at a time and then quickly moved on, taking with them our citizens money along with their hopes and dreams."

The Insurance Information Institute (III) — a non-profit consumer group sponsored by the insurance industry — offers these tips to help homeowners avoid becoming victims of fraud.

  • Don’t be rushed into signing a contract with any company. Instead, collect business cards and get written estimates for the proposed job to compare companies and review your options.
  • Beware of contractors who encourage you to spend a lot of money on temporary repairs. Payments for temporary repairs are covered as part of the total settlement. If you pay a contractor a large sum for a temporary fix, you might not have enough money for permanent repairs. Remember to keep repair receipts. Your insurer will reimburse you for these costs.
  • Investigate the track record of any roofer, builder, or contractor you consider hiring. Look for professionals with solid reputations. Get references.
  • Never give anyone a deposit until after you have thoroughly researched his background.

In addition, you should beware of a common fraud scheme in which a "contractor" convinces you to shell out a large deposit before beginning work. Frequently, the job is started, but not completed. If you receive such a request, investigate the credentials of the contractor. Many areas require contractors to be licensed.

Former-Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan says during his term, home repair fraud was one of the biggest problems he faced. “The best defense against unscrupulous home repair contractors is an aggressive defense. Don’t make a rash decision. Check the contractor’s background, references, and prior work. Most importantly, don’t sign a contract until you’ve read it carefully and agree to all its provisions,” Ryan says. “Remember, it’s your home, it’s your money. Protect them both.”

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