How to protect your home from wildfire disasters

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According to the Insurance Information Institute, 90% of wildfires in the United States are caused by people, and the remaining 10% are caused by lightning strikes or lava. In 2017, Verisk’s Wildfire Risk Analysis found that 4.5 million homes in the U.S. were designated as being at high or extreme risk of being impacted by wildfire. Over the last ten years alone, the number of acreage burned in the United States has almost doubled.

If your house is affected by a wildfire’s wrath, your homeowner’s insurance may be able to help. Here’s how to tell if you’re protected.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, in recent years, fire season has expanded from being a four-month ordeal to fire seasons now expected to last six to eight months. Even winter wildfire outbreaks are not outside of the norm anymore.

There are several reasons that contribute to longer fire seasons:

  • Winter snows melting earlier
  • Rain arriving later in the fall
  • Extended drought
  • Easily ignitable invasive species like cheatgrass

The number of homes for sale within wildfire zones in incredible. In California alone, Zillow reports that nearly 500,000 homes are located in wildfire-prone areas of the state. These houses have a combined value of greater than $200 billion.

These at-risk areas don’t do much to slow down real estate ventures into these neighborhoods. In fact, a study out of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas found that although real estate prices tend to go down in the immediate aftermath of a wildfire, home values return to their pre-fire numbers in as little as one to two years. From 2000 to 2010, homes in heavily forested areas increased from 12.5 million units to 44 million.

Though home values can return quickly, fires can still cause devastating damage. In 2018 alone, 8.7 million acres were burned in wildfires, leaving behind more than $24 billion worth of damage.

When you’re a homeowner in a wildfire-prone area, the potential risks and costs are staggering. From higher insurance premiums to the risk of losing belongings, pets and the home you love, the costs can be immeasurable. To ensure you are protected if a wildfire breaks out in your neighborhood, it’s important to know if wildfire insurance is a good idea for you.

Is your home at risk?

The geographic area in which you live is one of the best predictors for your home’s wildfire risk. Though California is notorious for its devastating fires, many other U.S. states also face wildfire risks. The top 10 states with the most acres burned since 2002 (in order of acres burned) include:

  • California
  • Georgia
  • Texas
  • North Carolina
  • Florida
  • Arizona
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • Alabama
  • Oregon

Click on each state below to see the number of acres burned due to wildfires since 2002.

Determine whether your home is in a high-risk area

Though the top ten states with the most acres burned are from various regions across the country, they all have certain vulnerabilities that increase their risk for fire outbreaks.

States like California and Texas experience hot, dry climates with fuels and terrain conducive to wildfires. Long, dry summers lead to the dying and drying out of vegetation, making these areas prone to fires starting and spreading more easily when the winds arrive in the fall.

Climate isn’t the only factor. Homes within 2,500 feet of canyons, wildfire areas or brush areas are more susceptible, particularly during the hot, dry seasons.

If you’re purchasing a new home, the location of the property can determine your risk level and insurance premiums. If you live in a wildfire-prone area, your insurance premium will be higher.

In some cases, homeowners may be denied coverage under the standard home policy and instead be required to purchase a standalone policy. An instance where this may occur may be if your house were a long distance from the nearest fire department.

Other factors that may increase your vulnerability to wildfire damage include your landscaping, yard terrain and home materials. Yards that are well-kept with no overgrowth fare better in at-risk areas. Adding landscaping accents like stone walls patios, rocks and mulch can help make your yard safer. You can also plant less-flammable hardwood trees such as maple, poplar and cherry trees.

As far as your home exteriors go, FEMA suggests using fire-resistant materials like cement, plaster and stucco. Avoid materials such as wooden roofing shingles and chemically-treated coatings.

Prospective buyers of homes in wildfire-prone areas should be aware of a few factors when scouting a home in a vulnerable zone:

  • What the home and nearby homes are made of (avoid neighborhoods with wood-shake roofs and vinyl siding)
  • The amount of vegetation in the yard
  • Houses at the top of hills or slopes that may be more vulnerable to wildfires

Is wildfire damage covered by all insurance policies?

If you’re in need of home insurance for your wildfire-area home, there are a few important things you should know.

Most standard homeowners’ policies include coverage for wildfire damage. However, if you live in a high-risk area, such as within a close range of a canyon, you may need to opt for additional coverage for total protection.

When you’re shopping for home insurance, keep in mind that policies can vary in the coverages provided. Typical homeowners policies extend coverage for:

  • The home’s structure: Your policy covers the cost to repair or rebuild your home after damage from fire, hail, lightning and other disasters covered in your insurance policy.
  • Personal belongings: Items such as furniture, clothes, jewelry and even trees and shrubs are protected from fire damage. Remember that there may be a dollar limit on valuables lost.
  • Liability protection: This protects you if you, a family member or a pet damages something in another person’s home or injures someone.
  • Additional living expenses: This covers the costs of living away from your primary residence following extensive damage due to fire or another insured natural disaster. Transportation costs are included under this component as well.

When shopping for a home in a wildfire zone, you’ll also want to know how old the house is and whether it is up to date with current building codes. Be diligent in your research to determine if you require supplemental coverage. Though California now has statewide codes for new construction in wildfire zones, other states will require more thorough research to determine the required fire code procedures.

Understand your coverage limits

When you take out a homeowner’s insurance policy, understand your coverage limits. Your insurance company will only pay up to a maximum amount for wildfire damage. If you need more coverage, you will have to purchase supplemental insurance. Also, your insurance policy may require you to pay a deductible before your insurance kicks in.

As with other insurance policies, contact your insurance agent to check your policy or make changes. Having a detailed understanding of your insurance policy and everything it covers will help you be better prepared should your house suffer damage from a wildfire.

What can be done to reduce your insurance premium?

According to the Insurance Information Institute, there are several ways to go about lowering your home insurance premium, such as:

  • Shopping around
  • Raising your deductible
  • Bundling home and auto policies
  •  Making the house more disaster-proof
  • Improving home security
  • Building/maintaining a good credit rating

Make sure you and your home are protected

If there’s a chance that your home could be at risk of fire damage, do everything you can to keep yourself, your family and your home protected. Review the following suggestions for setting up an extra layer of protection between a wildfire and your home.

Reduce risk of wildfire damage:

  • Use non-flammable construction materials like cement and stone.
  • Clear your yard of vegetation and debris. Remove, dry leaves and overgrowth promptly.
  • Maintain your lawn.
  • Avoid storing propane tanks against or underneath your home.
  • Utilize a landscaping strategy that creates firebreaks by way of stone walls and pathways, fire-resistant hardwood trees and rock flower beds.

Develop an evacuation plan for you and your family:

  • Determine meeting points and alternate evacuation routes.
  • Compile important documents and emergency contact information.

Create a home inventory list:

  • Keep a record of your belongings and their values to provide proof of loss and expedite your claim in the event of a wildfire.

Develop an understanding of what your home insurance covers and what areas it may be lacking:

  • When choosing your coverage amount, consider the cost to rebuild your home and property. You won’t want to underestimate and be left without should you lose everything.
  • Make sure wildfires are covered in your policy.

Bottom line

Whether you already reside in a wildfire-prone region or you’re house-hunting in a vulnerable zone, there are many factors to consider when creating a plan to keep yourself and your home safe when tragedy strikes.

From researching your neighborhood and the housing materials used to adding supplemental homeowner insurance if you live in a high-risk area, there are many steps you can take to ensure you are covered when a wildfire strikes.

Take personal steps, like keeping your yard neat and trimmed, and communicate with your family about what you would do in an emergency. You’ll be thankful you considered all of these factors if you ever experience in a wildfire in your neighborhood.