A wildfire is a frightening and traumatic event that can cause significant property damage. In California, wildfires destroy thousands of structures each year. If your home gets damaged or destroyed in a wildfire, it is critical to take the correct steps toward recovery. An insurance company will check to see if you fulfilled all of your responsibilities as a homeowner before providing benefits for property repairs or replacement. Take the following steps to build a claim and move forward.
Put Your Safety First
Before you start the processes that will lead to a settlement or lawsuit, focus on your personal health, safety and wellbeing. If you were at home when a wildfire struck, go to a hospital immediately for professional medical care. Even if you don’t seem injured initially, you may have damage from smoke inhalation, such as latent respiratory problems. Help your family and pets receive the medical attention that they need, as well.
Do not return to your damaged home until you have been given permission to do so by firefighters or county health officials. Even after the fire has been put out, the dirty water and soot left behind could make you sick. Be careful when you return to your home and do not touch anything without using gloves. It is often best to leave pets and children someplace safe while you return, for safety reasons.
Get Help From Disaster Relief Services
Several disaster relief services are available to provide for your immediate needs after a wildfire in California, such as the Salvation Army, American Red Cross and public agencies. These services can help you and your family acquire the clothing, shelter, food and medications that you need.
Contact Your Insurance Company Right Away
If you have homeowners or renters insurance, contact your insurance company as soon as possible to report the wildfire. In your initial conversation with an insurance representative, ask about your coverage for more information. Find out your coverage limits and any deductibles you may need to pay, as well as information about the required claims process.
The insurance company may give you recommendations on a company to clean and restore your personal items. Although it is not a requirement to use the recommended restoration company, it can help ensure insurance coverage. Be sure to get a written estimate from the insurance company before accepting any repair recommendations.
Document Your Losses
Carefully document the losses that you suffered because of the wildfire. Make a detailed list of everything that you lost. This may include your home, sheds and structures, vehicles, furniture, electronics, clothing, gifts, appliances, jewelry, family heirlooms, and items with sentimental value. Write down an estimate of each item’s value. Take photographs of your property damage to put on the record.
The insurance company will send an evaluator to your home to assess the wildfire damage. You may wish to pay for a second opinion from someone besides the insurance company to be sure that you are being treated fairly. Keep all bills and receipts related to immediate repairs, alternative living expenses, lost wages, medical expenses and other costs as evidence of your losses.
Notify Your Mortgage Service Lender
Call your landlord if you lease your home or your mortgage lender if you own your home to report the wildfire. While your mortgage lender needs to know about the fire, you will continue to make your regular mortgage payments. Generally, there will not be any changes to the terms of your loan during the rebuilding or replacement of your home. If you don’t wish to rebuild your home, the proceeds you received from the insurance company for the wildfire can be used to pay off the remaining mortgage balance.
File a Homeowners Insurance Claim
After you have created a comprehensive list of your losses and documented them with receipts and evidence, you are ready to file a homeowners or renter’s insurance claim. The average homeowner’s insurance policy will cover fire damage to your home, your possessions and other structures on your property. You may need additional insurance, however, to cover jewelry and high-value assets.
Proceed with the claims process by submitting all of the paperwork and documentation required by the insurance company. Cooperate with the insurance company’s investigation of the fire. If you believe the insurance company is requesting an unreasonable amount of evidence, delaying the evaluation of your case without reason or is otherwise mishandling your claim, consult with an attorney about a potential insurance bad faith lawsuit. If you disagree with the insurance company’s proposed resolution or settlement offer, an attorney can help you protect your rights.
Consider Filing a Wildfire Damage Lawsuit
You do not need to understand the cause of a wildfire to receive insurance coverage for damage to your home. If an investigation discovers that someone is at fault for the fire, however, consider bringing a lawsuit with assistance from a wildfire attorney. If an electric company started the wildfire through negligent acts such as failing to replace faulty equipment, for example, you may have grounds to hold the company liable for your property losses.
Electric companies often play a role in California wildfires. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), for instance, was recently found to be at fault for 12 Northern California wildfires. PG&E also caused the most destructive fire in California’s history: the Camp Fire. Electric companies have the ability to prevent wildfires by properly installing, inspecting and maintaining their equipment. When they carelessly fail to do so, they can be held responsible for related wildfires.
You may also be able to bring a lawsuit against a utility company in the absence of fault under the rule of inverse condemnation. This legal theory states that if a government agency or utility company acquired or used your property for the public benefit, such as to install powerlines and power poles, you are due just compensation for any damage to the property. A utility company may be responsible for your property damage or destruction even if it was not negligent.
Consult With a California Wildfire Attorney
For professional assistance after your home is damaged or destroyed in a wildfire, consult with a wildfire attorney in California. The attorneys at Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger can help you with an insurance claim and/or liability lawsuit in pursuit of justice and compensation. We will be here for your family in the difficult aftermath of a wildfire, connecting you to resources and organizations that can provide everything that you need to move forward. Call (415) 981-7210 today for more information.