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Articles California Wildfire FAQ

California Wildfire
Frequently Asked Questions:

My house has just burned.  What do I do first?

First things first: come to grips with the harsh reality: life is going to be very difficult and you’re going to be greatly inconvenienced. There will be big decisions to make, which will require you to investigate and compare options. You’ll need to be on your “A” game. The hard truth is it make take a year or more to restore your life. Take note the process can easily affect your health. Many people experience fatigue, dizziness, anxiety and even symptoms of PTSD. Take your symptoms seriously. See medical help if you need it. Take care of yourself.

Who should I call first?

Immediately, contact family and friends who may be worried about you. Let them know everyone is safe—or not. When they ask what they can do to help, tell them you’ll get back to them. And mentally prepare yourself to accept all the help you can get. This is not the time to play lone ranger.

When can I get back inside my house?

Research says, the best advice here is this: under no circumstances should you go back inside until the authorities tell you it is safe.  Keep in mind only a Fire Marshall can clear a burned house for re-entry. Taking the risk of going in on your own can be fatal. Burnt synthetics and chemicals can cause damage. Floors, walls and ceilings may appear safe but unseen damage could hurt you.

Will the local authorities be inspecting my home for damage?

Your local fire department will generate a fire report with information about your damaged home. (You should get a copy of this report right away. You’ll need this for your insurance claims to verify how damage occurred.) The Fire Department will be returning in their own time to check on the home to make sure it is not still a fire hazard. They will likely cut off electricity and/or gas from the street. Water is usually unaffected, unless the fire damaged the water line and there is any flooding in the home. To restore utilities, you will need a licensed electrician and/or plumber to inspect your house. Their report will specify repairs needed before utilities can be reconnected. (There are fees and costs involved, but they may be reimbursed by your insurance company. It is wise to check this out in advance.)  A building inspector or engineer representing the local building authorities is required to assess what is required to secure your home.  Usually they will ask request a “board up” or restoration company be hired to secure the windows and doors if the walls and roof are intact. If there is significant damage, including the roof, the engineer will may recommend the structure be demolished as it represents a collapse hazard. Until you get these inspections reports, you shouldn’t need perform any cleanup or repairs yourself. An exception might be that if no restoration company or adjuster is available to come soon, and there is reason to protect property, then you may, after taking all precautions, act to protect your property with tarping and boarding.

When do I call the insurance company?

Call your insurance company or your agent right away to start the claim process.  Ask if your damage is covered. Even if you’re pretty sure it is, you’ll feel better with confirmation and specifics. And if there are any issues about coverage, payment status, etc., you’d better off knowing sooner not later.

Ask what emergency lodging and living expenses will be paid by the company and if an advance on your future claim is available. If so, have the check delivered to wherever you’re staying or, if you don’t know, to a friend or family member.

From this point on, keep every receipt that passes through your hands. Document and document some more. Write down date, time and individual when you speak to anyone at your insurance company, the Fire Marshal, Fire Department, Inspections Department. Keep everything you receive by mail including copies of checks. Same with your contractor. Make sure you have a solid written contract and keep a copy. Note every discussion with your contractor during the rebuilding. Always pay by check and keep copies in your file. Keep receipts and manuals for everything bought for your house. Don’t hesitate to use your smart phone or camera to make “photo-notes.” Bottom line: become obsessed with paperwork.    

And remember, most insurance policies allow you to continue the same lifestyle you had before the fire, but they will not cover any upgrades so don’t plan on checking into a suite at a five-star hotel unless that’s your routine.

What will I forget?

Medicine. If you or someone in your household takes medication lost in the fire, call your doctor’s office and ask them to call in replacement prescriptions. (Picking them up is a task you can assign to a friend or family member who volunteered help.)

Should I try to protect what remains of my property?

Unless you have a total loss. Once you’re allowed back inside, assess what needs to be protected from the elements. Cover whatever you think is salvageable with plywood and/or plastic sheeting. This step is important because insurance policies may not cover ensuing damage if you have not taken reasonable steps to protect your property. However, make sure that it is safe to take those steps. Bottom line: life and limbs are more important than property.

Should I start making repairs right away?

Absolutely not.  Wait until your claims adjuster has visited. Be prepared for this to take a while. When many homes are damaged, adjusters are stretched thin. Usually adjusters will be brought in from other areas to help, but it can still take time which, in your situation, feels like an eternity. Bottom line: practice patience.

Most of my possessions are destroyed.  What to do?

Start your list of damaged and destroyed items. Most likely, you’ll need several days or weeks to complete it. Itemize kitchen items, china, linens, holiday decorations, hobby materials, over-the-counter medicines, everything: your brand new big screen as well as those old soft jeans you live in. Use your phone or camera to take photos. Walk through your house with pencil and paper and try to picture everything that was there. Hopefully, you’re one of those people who videotaped everything—just in case. And hopefully you stored a copy of video in your safety deposit box or at another location. With your list in hand, put together anything you must help establish the value—receipts, insurance statements, photos. Preparing this inventory of items lost is one of the most critical steps. Take the time to get it right. (NOTE: Do not dispose of any damaged items until the adjuster tells you it's okay—and get that in writing or otherwise on record.)

What if the insurance company wants to give me a check?

Typically, there are three parts to the insurance payment of claims: dwelling, contents and living expenses. Some insurance companies (but not all) provide an advance for emergency living expenses. That’s great. But be very wary of a living expense offers disguised as a full settlement that attempts to trick you into signing a release of further liability. It’s way too early to know the full extent of your claim. If something doesn’t feel right, always consult authorities or any attorney before signing. It’s a sad fact of life, but the actions of unscrupulous adjusters and others have short-changed many insurance customers.

What if I don’t agree with my settlement offer?

In California, and many other states, insurance companies are governed by strict laws that specify time deadlines to make and tell you decisions on claims and then to pay those claims.  They require a claim denial in writing with specific reasons for the denial. If denied you can probably go to your state’s department of insurance for a claim review. The denial should tell you how to contact the appropriate state authorities. In California, you can talk to the Consumer Communications Bureau (CCB). Call their toll-free hotline with all your insurance questions.  Another recourse would be go to a licensed public adjuster for a free claim review

How do I choose a contractor to rebuild my house?

Carefully.  Unfortunately, scam artists posing as contractors often come out of the woodwork after natural disasters.  Before you sign a contract or hand over money, do your due diligence.

Call your city or county building department to see if the company is licensed to do the work they’ll perform.

Watch out for “FEMA endorsement”.

Never pay up front.

How do I choose a contractor that is best suited for my project?

The contractor’s experience is the key. You want a contractor who has experience in California, and especially, in the municipal jurisdiction in which your home is located. Some contractors can also provide long experience dealing with banks and insurance companies. They know the procedures and can help your project proceed more smoothly. (Remember, the insurer or bank will send out an inspector to verify the work was done and, importantly, in conformance with local and state codes.) Get references. Check licenses. Verify the Certificate of Insurance. Don’t get rushed. Resist pressure. You’re making a very big decision with very large consequences. Take your time. Do it right.

What do I need to know about building codes?

They change, sometimes frequently. Codes may have been made more stringent since your house was built. Occasionally, a local government may give a special dispensation to disaster victims, but most likely you’ll have to meet the new codes when you rebuild. And this could lead to a scam that you should know about.

Let’s say, because of so much rebuilding, contractors come in from other states, say Texas. These “foreigners” are used to building under a different code. They get to the first inspection on your job and it turns out you don’t meet the new codes. Rather than redo their work, the long, tall Texans may disappear with everything you’ve paid to date in their pockets.

What’s a fire chaser?

Scammers who go door to door after fires selling their services for cleanup and rebuilding. They play on your frustrations and try to pressure you to sign binding contracts for inflated fees. To be on the safe side, don’t do business with strangers who just show up at your door.

What paperwork will I need?

Document everything. Repeat: document everything. Write down date, time and individual when you speak to anyone at your insurance company. Keep everything you receive by mail including copies of checks. Same with your contractor. Make sure you have a solid written contract and keep a copy. Note every discussion with your contractor during the rebuilding.  Always pay by check and keep copies in your file. Keep receipts and manuals for everything bought for your house. Make extensive video/audio notes if possible.

What is the most important thing I can do to survive this?

Practice patience—make that extraordinary patience. Rebuilding your home and your life is a slow, tedious, emotional process. It’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever go through. Accept that it’s going to take time and more time, so much time it feels like forever. But don’t try to rush the universe. Lose your cool and you’re ten times more likely to be scammed or taken—or do something you’ll regret. Breathe deeply, relax and make good use of all support and help that comes your way.

Where can I learn more?

You'll find much useful information in the BuildEveryHome Learning Center. We are adding new content there every day, so check back often.