If you’re one of those victims of the California wildfires, coming home to fire damage can be incredibly overwhelming—especially when you’re considering the total destruction of some or all of your property. But there are concrete, specific steps you can take to move forward and return home, replace your damaged property, repair your home and file your claims for insurance coverage.
If you’re not sure where to begin, this checklist is a great place to start.
- Contact Your Family and Friends. If you haven’t already, ensure that your loved ones know that you’re safe, that your family is safe, and where you are. If you don’t have access to a phone or computer, contact your local fire station, town hall, or community services office.
- Contact Your Mortgage Lender. Let your mortgage lender know that you’ve suffered fire damage and have been displaced from your home. In many cases, your lender will offer a temporary pause on your payment deadlines, freeing up extra cash you may need in the meantime.
- Stop or Transfer Your Mail Delivery. If you’re not able to live in your home or have been evacuated temporarily, you can submit a request online with the U.S. Postal Service to hold your mail. You can specify the period of time for the hold, and at the end of the hold period all of your mail will be delivered at once. If you’ve relocated to another location for an extended period of time—for example, if your home is not habitable—then you can forward your mail to that address. Both of these services are available at the U.S. Postal Service website.
- Notify people of your temporary address. If you’re unable to live in your home, notify your family, friends and employer of your temporary address. Also notify your bank, school, credit cards, utility company and your insurance company of your change in address.
- Protect Yourself and Your Family from Smoke Inhalation. Smoke inhalation is a real danger following widespread wildfires such as these. Stay inside as much as you are able, and if you do go outside, make sure you and your family wear a mask—such as a respirator. These masks are widely available at hardware stores and home repair stores.
- Keep All of Your Receipts. Many homeowner’s insurance policies and fire insurance policies cover the expenses you incur if you were forced to evacuate your home because of the fire, as well as for continued living expenses if you’re not able to return to your home because of fire damage. These Additional Living Expenses (also called “ALEs”) can include costs such as hotel bills, pet boarding, storage costs, gas, the cost of meals while you’re displaced, moving costs, and other out-of-pocket expenses you may have had while you were unable to return home. For all of these expenses, document your costs and keep copies of all of your receipts.
- Ensure That It’s Safe to Return. After the fires have passed, first and foremost ensure that you and your family are safe. Do not return to your home or property before it has been declared by the emergency responders as safe to do so. If the local authorities imposed an evacuation ban on your neighborhood, make sure that the travel restrictions have been officially lifted before you go back home.
- Check for damage. Before you even go inside your home, look for damage on the outside of the home that might indicate severe structural damage or other dangerous issues inside. These signs of structure damage can include cracks in the foundation, loose power lines, broken timbers to the siding and porch, roof breakage and overhangs, and other visible signs of damage. If you’re concerned that any of the damage is severe, contact a licensed contractor to inspect your home before you or your family enters.
If you decide to enter your home, continue to look for visible signs of structural damage inside the home. Be particularly careful of signs of structural weakness, such as broken stair boards or sagging floors.
- Look out for signs of continued fire. Look in all areas of your home for any remaining signs of fire, such as lingering smoke and yellow embers. Be sure to look in harder-to-reach areas of your home, too, such as your attic and basement. Watch out for ash pits and mark them clearly; warn children and your neighbors about these ash areas.
- Monitor your pets. Watch your animals closely and keep them under your direct control. There may still be hidden hot spots and embers, which can burn your pets’ paws and hooves.
- Sniff for gas and other noxious smells. Be aware not only of what you’re seeing, but what you’re smelling. If you smell gas, contact your local gas company immediately—there might be a leak. Be on the lookout for other noxious, chemical smells, such as from household cleaning products and other household chemicals. Some of these can become toxic when mixed or burned. If you’re concerned about a chemical spill in your home, contact your local biohazard cleanup professional immediately.
- Do not force jammed doors. As you’re first inspecting your home, if you encounter a jammed or stuck door, do not force it open. It may be the only structural support for that wall or area of your home, and removing that could cause a collapse.
- Look Up for Bulging Ceilings. A bulge or bubble in your ceiling can indicate pooling water damage. These areas are prone to falling, which can be a severe health and safety risk. Take a sharp tool and poke holes in the bulging area to help it drain.
- Always wear proper protective gear. If you’re entering fire-damaged areas, always wear the proper gear for your health and safety. This includes gloves, rubber-soled boots, long, sturdy pants such as denim or canvas, and long sleeves. If you’re concerned that there may be severe damage in your home, you should also wear safety glasses, respirator mask and hard hat. All of these supplies are available at your local hardware store or home repair stores.
- Look out for exposed and fraying wires. If you see torn wires, frayed wires or wires that are sparking, do not touch them. Turn off the electricity in the main fuse box and contact a professional electrician.
- Inspect your water pipes and sewage line. Visually inspect your water and sewage pipes for signs of damage. If you see damage, turn off your main water valve and avoid using your showers, toilets and sinks. Then contact a professional plumber to come and inspect your pipes before using them.
- Keep the Air Flowing. If the weather permits, keep windows and doors open so that you maintain air flow. This can help with ridding your home of lingering smoke and particulates.
- Dampen debris. If there’s dry ash and debris, spray it down with water using your hose. This will help minimize dust particles in the air and improve your breathing.
- Throw Out Any Food That Has Been Exposed to Smoke. Do not eat anything that has been exposed to fire smoke. This includes food, beverages, and medicine that has been tainted by the smoke.
- Inspect Appliances Before Using. Inspect all of your electrical appliances before plugging them in. If they’ve suffered from fire or water damage, they could spark and cause injury.
- Clean soot from your floors, furniture and walls. Use a mild soap or cleaning agent, such as a mild household cleaner, and wipe down all of your surfaces. You should also use soap or dish detergent to wash all of your pots, pans, dishes and drinkware.
- Replace damaged flooring, drywall and insulation. If any of the structural components of your home have been damaged by water or fire, you should consult a contractor for replacement. You cannot compromise on the structural integrity of your home.
- Replace smoke detectors. Another fire may be the last thing on your mind, but be sure that a battery-powered smoke detector is installed on every floor, and in every bedroom.
- Be aware of scams. Unfortunately, there are those who prey on the most vulnerable in their time of need. If you are contacted by a contractor who offers a deal that seems too good to be true—it probably is. Before signing any contracts with contractors or repairmen, ask for references and verify that they have all the applicable licenses. Always pay contractors in installments, and never 100% up front, so that you can ensure the work is completed before you’ve paid in full.
Once it’s safe to return home, and you’ve completed your initial safety checks, it’s important not to forget about your insurance claim. After all, you’ve suffered damage and you need to set yourself up in the best possible position to recover the insurance coverage that you’re owed. Here’s what steps to take:
- Contact your insurance agency. First, you’ll need to reach out to your insurance company, and request that they send an adjuster to your property as soon as possible. You’ll want to do this immediately upon returning to your home.
- Document everything. Next, you need to create documentation of all of your damage, including all of your belongings and property that were damaged or destroyed by the fire. Create what insurance companies call a “Proof of Loss” form, which is a document listing all of pieces of property that were destroyed or damaged. This should include destroyed and damaged physical property, like your vehicle, furniture, clothing and other belongings. It should also include your real property, such as your home, land, crops, and structures like sheds and garages. As you make the list, include as much detail as you are able to see or remember about each item, such as the size, make, model, and when and where it was purchased. In this list, include all property that was completely destroyed and lost to the fire, and those things that are only partially damaged.
- Take photographs. Support your written documentation in your Proof of Loss with photographs of your damage. Include shots from several angles of each item of property that is damaged. Stay organized so that you can match each photograph to an item or items in your Proof of Loss document.
- Keep all of your receipts. Keep organized, detailed receipts of all of your expenses. These will include records for all of your repair work, contractors’ fees, any continued and additional living expenses, and anything else you pay for that is a consequence of the fire damage. You’ll want to submit all of these expenses to your insurance company.
- Don’t throw anything away. Hold onto any property that was damaged until the insurance claim adjuster comes to your home to inspect the damage. You want the claims adjuster to be able to see every piece of damaged property, so it’s included in his or her assessment. Even if you took a photograph of it—keep it. You don’t want to give the insurance company any excuse to deny your claim for that piece of property.
- Recover important documents. If you are able, recover important documents that were inside your home. These should include items like your passport, birth certificates, marriage certificate, bank books, animal registration papers, passports, stocks, wills, titles, social security cards and medical records.
- Keep paying your insurance bill. Make certain that your insurance policy stays in good standing—pay your premiums, and pay them on time.
- Request an explanation. If your insurance company denies part or all of your claims, first demand that they explain in detail the reasons for the denial. Ask them to cite specific sections of your insurance policy for each denial, and explain why the policy permits each denial.
- Consult an attorney. If you’re not satisfied with the insurance company’s response, or if their answers are confusing, you should consult an attorney.
Our team of disaster law attorneys has years of experience counseling victims of fire and other natural disasters about their rights as insured, throughout all stages of the insurance claims process. We are here to make sure that you understand your rights, and that those rights are protected.
The insurance paperwork can be confusing, so we help our clients through every step of the process, from creating a Proof of Loss form, documenting damage, to analyzing your policy to determine the scope of your coverage. We can help you document your damage efficiently and completely, so that you submit a comprehensive claim to your insurer and maximize the amount of compensation you receive for your losses.
Although you may not be able to recover the 100% value of each item of property that was damaged, you do want to ensure that you do everything to maximize the coverage that you receive. That’s why we are here to advise you throughout every stage of the claims process to make sure that you are not taken advantage of by your insurance company, and—most importantly—that you receive the maximum compensation you deserve for your losses.
Overall, be easy on yourself. Returning to a charred, damage home is mentally and emotionally tolling. Take time to acknowledge your loss, and take time to grieve those losses with your family.
The journey of getting your family resettled and rebuilding your lives is a long process. Instead of thinking about everything at once, use this checklist to take small steps, checking off one achievable task at a time.
And if you’re not sure about what you should do, how to protect your rights, the terms of your insurance policy, or your policy’s coverage and limitations: we’re here to help.