You don’t have to live in California to find yourself in the path of a wildfire. These disasters can and do spread across most western states.
Fire season used to be five weeks long in the 1970s, then more than seven months by the early aughts. This spring, Vicki Christiansen, the chief of the US Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, told NPR, “It’s always fire season now.”
With over one billion acres at risk for catastrophic burning this year, it’s important for homeowners to be aware of their local fire risk and to create a fire prevention and safety plan.
Part of that plan means brushing up on your homeowners insurance:
- Make sure your have your home insurance agent’s contact information readily available.
- Understand how homeowners insurance covers fire damage.
Find out how to anticipate fire risks, how to make a fire safety plan, and how to ensure your homeowners insurance protects your house.
"It’s always fire season now."
Know Your Local Fire Risks & Take Precautions
So what are the most common causes of house fires? They’re not all that surprising:
- Cooking fires
- Heating fires, including boiler or gas furnace explosions
- Open flames from fireplaces or candles
- Indoor smoking and cigarettes
- Wildfires, most of which are caused by human error
If you live in the woods of New England, you’re less likely to be worried about wildfires than a Californian, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice the same kind of diligence.
All homeowners should take these fire prevention measures:
- Install smoke detectors on each floor of the home and in utility rooms, rooms with fireplaces, rooms with appliances, and crawlspaces.
- Test all smoke detectors twice a year.
- Clean fireplaces at least once a year to prevent build-ups that can lead to fires.
- Kitchen fires are very common, so remove clutter and flammable items in and around cooking appliances.
- Never leave a burning candle or cigarette unattended.
- Keep candles and burners far from flammable materials like paper and curtains.
- Inspect outlets, all extension cords, surge protectors, and all cords to ensure there’s no fraying to help prevent electrical fires.
Wherever you live, it’s also a good idea to keep your trees trimmed so that there are no branches hanging over your roof or within 30 feet of your home. This is your "defensible space," a buffer between a dwelling and the grass, trees, and shrubs. Creating this space may protect your home from catching fire from direct flame or radiant heat.
If you live in California, you may have to comply with defensible space ordinances to help curb the spread of wildfires. These regulations vary depending on where you live, but many counties require homeowners to:
- Remove all dead plants, grass, weeds, leaves, and pine needles from the yard, roof, and rain gutters.
- Keep trees trimmed so that branches are 10 feet from other trees.
- Keep dead branches 10 feet away from the chimney.
- Relocate wood piles so they are 100 feet away from the home, deck, or other structures.
- Remove or prune flammable plants, shrubs, and vegetation near windows and decks.
- Create a separation between trees and shrubs and outdoor furniture, wood piles, etc.
Prepare Your Home for the Worst-Case Scenario
If your house does catch on fire, your first priority should be to get out of the house safely as quickly as possible.
If your fire risk is external – like a wildfire – you’ll want to leave your house in the best condition to avoid a total loss. If you have time, these steps can help cover your bases:
- Remove combustible items from your yard and store them in a safe place. These items may include firewood, fuel canisters, barbecue grills, and yard waste.
- Fill any large vessels with water to slow or discourage fire – pools, tubs, or garbage cans should be full if you have the time to do so. It’s also a good idea to keep rain barrels.
- Close all vents, windows, and doors to prevent drafts.
- Shut off natural gas, fuel oil, or propane lines.
Human error is the most common cause of house fires.
Make a Fire Plan and Practice It
Your fire plan should address what you’ll do, where you’ll go, and how you’ll communicate with your family members and the outside world (including first responders) if there’s a fire in the area. Beyond making sure everyone knows to stop, drop, and roll, here are five steps to prepare your family for a house fire.
1. Stock Up
In case you have to shelter in place, keep a stock of drinking water and canned food to tide you over.
2. Test Your Smoke Alarms
3. Have Your Emergency Bags Packed
Pack “go bags” for the family. One administrative bag should include:
- Directions to a safe place
- A list of personal contacts (in case your cell phone runs out of battery)
- Your driver's license (and the rest of your wallet)
- The deed to your house
- Proof of insurance
- Passports and social security cards, if you keep these documents in the house
4. Practice Your Plan with a Family Fire Drill
Make sure everyone in your family knows what the smoke alarms sound like and can identify the signs of a fire.
To test your escape routes, run family fire drills to make sure everyone knows two ways out of every room in the house. This may sound extreme, but it won’t seem impractical if you ever find yourself in danger.
As part of your drill, make sure you practice getting to your designated meet-up spot. If you live in a multifamily building with an elevator, it’s imperative that everyone knows to take the stairs or knows where to wait for a rescue if they’re unable to.
Make sure you have a plan to get your pets to safety, too!
5. Test Your Emergency Communication Plan
You should have an emergency communication plan that accounts for what you’ll do if you get separated without your cell phones. Make sure everyone knows who to contact in case they can’t make it to the meetup spot.
90% of wildfires are caused by humans.
Make Sure Your House Is Properly Insured for Fires
Fires are a covered peril in most standard homeowners insurance policies. There are a couple of common situations in which you may want additional coverage:
- If you do not live in your house, you’ll likely need a DP-3 insurance policy, which covers the structure in case of a fire.
- If you live in an area where wildfires are common, discuss which perils are covered by your policy with your homeowners insurance agent. If it’s not included, you may want to get additional earth movement insurance. This may seem unrelated at first, but mudslides commonly occur in areas that have been ravaged by wildfires where erosion is a serious problem. Part of the reason for this elevated risk is that scorched earth has more trouble absorbing water, which means a whole level of ground cover that is easily moved if those wildfires are followed by a rainy season.
It’s worth noting that your homeowners insurance premium will be impacted by the protection class of the area where you live. The protection class is determined by the Insurance Services Organization, and it can be difficult to change your home’s protection class on your own because so much of it is determined by the local infrastructure.
Make sure you have the right coverage for the risks near you. Talk to your homeowners insurance agent to make sure your current level of coverage is appropriate for your home, any outbuildings on your property, and the contents of your house.
The Takeaway: Control What You Can
Like most disasters, fires are hard to predict and difficult to prevent. The Insurance Information Institute says that 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans. Be cautious in your home and in the wild. Be attentive to flames wherever they’re present. There’s not much you can do to prevent a wildfire or an unknown electrical issue hiding in your walls, but you can take care of your home and maintain a working smoke detector system. Do everything in your power to prepare your home and your family for a worst-case scenario.