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Wildfires and home insurance: What you need to know

The price tag for insured losses from the recent wildfires in Northern California is $1.05 billion, with insurers receiving 601 claims for commercial property losses, 4,177 claims for partial residential losses and 3,000 claims for auto losses, according to the California Department of Insurance. 

Typically, damage from fire, smoke and ash is covered under standard home insurance, though in some cases, depending on your location, there may be some exclusions for wildfires.

In California, for example, if you live within 2,500 feet of a canyon or area deemed high-risk by insurers, you may have to pay extra for coverage or you may even be denied a policy.

Wildfire threatening homes


What property is protected with home insurance?

Homeowners insurance covers a wide range of items, from your home to the belongings inside it.

Examples of dwelling coverage:

  • Home
  • Garage
  • Toolshed
  • Deck

Examples of personal property coverage:

  • Furniture
  • Clothing
  • Jewelry
  • Electronics

Handling smoke and ash damage

If your home was exposed to smoke and ash, be sure to have the house and your personal items inspected and then cleaned or treated and restored to its original state.

Your dwelling coverage, up to your policy limits, will pay to repair smoke and ash damage to your house, while contents coverage pays to repair and replace damaged furniture, clothing and other personal property. 

Here is a checklist for how to document smoke damage that will help support your wildfire claim, according to the non-profit consumer advocacy group United Policyholders:

  • After documenting your damage, let your insurance company inspect your home, and be sure to take notes on the inspection and document your conversations.
  • Be sure to have a thorough inspection done by a qualified person. For instance, it's ideal to have the inspector be an independent contractor who does not get the majority of his or her business from your insurance company. Also, ask for credentials, to be sure you have trained professionals who are certified or trained in air quality and particulate assessment.
  • Consider paying for a qualified inspector to assess your home if your insurer is not willing to pay for an investigation into all damage, including what may be hidden behind drywall and so on. You will want to use a company that has experience testing homes exposed to wildfires that works with Certified Industrial Hygienists (CIH), who test for smoke, soot and char and other contaminants in the air and on surfaces. Field Testers conduct swab testing of surfaces inside your home to determine if there are particulates, such as carbon, ash or soot. The air is also captured in a container that can detect off-gassing specific to wildfires. These results are what you would submit to your insurance company. They also determine the type of cleaning and repair methods needed to make your home clean and safe again. The cost is typically between $2,000 to $4,000 for testing, lab work and a written report.

Tips for filing home insurance claims after wildfires

Keep an updated inventory

Have a list of your belongings prepared beforehand so you have a good place to start when you have to go over what property was possibly destroyed in the wildfire. This will speed up the completion of required proof of loss forms that ask for information related to the date of purchase for destroyed items and the cost to repair or replace them. Update this inventory as you accumulate or get rid of belongings. 

Record damage to all property

Have a record of the destruction to your property ready by taking pictures showing obvious signs of damage. Keep all damaged belongings in case an insurance adjuster needs to visit to inspect your property and verify claims.  

Get a second opinion

Get a second opinion as even professionals with an eye for home damage can have different assessments.

File your claim as soon as possible. To expedite the approval of your claims, begin the process quickly after you discover destruction to your property by contacting your insurance provider. There is a time limit for filing claims soconfirm the deadline to file claims with your insurance company before it is too late.

Check the condition of items after they are cleaned

If you believe an item is too far gone to be cleaned up, Unted Policyholders recommends insisting on a fair replacement value settlement for that item.  Additionally, you can claim the replacement value in addition to the cleaning cost of your belongings that are not in satisfactory condition after they've been cleaned.

Home insurance covers living expenses, comprehensive auto insurance covers your car

In the event your home is rendered inhabitable because of the fire, you can also file claims for additional living expenses. For example, you may need to get a hotel room and your insurance company may reimburse you for these costs. Additionally, you have the option to have your vehicle covered for fire damage under your auto insurance policy if you carry comprehensive coverage.

Beware of home repair fraud

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

The industry organization Insurance Information Institute 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. Before hiring a home repair contractor, investigate the credentials, background and testimonials of the previous work of the contractor. Many areas require contractors to be licensed.

How to protect your home from wildfires

Homeowners who live in areas susceptible to wildfires can protect themselves from the dangers the fires present.

Here's what you can do to guard against wildfires and prevent damage to your home:

  • 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.

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