Thursday, July 29, 2010

How to Prepare for the Upcoming Fire Season

By Ronald R. Reitz, CPPA
July 6, 2010

How Much Danger is Your Home or Business In? Where do you live?

If you live in San Diego County the upcoming summer of 2010 might be very dangerous.
Between the heavy growth from this year’s rains and the reduced fire fighting budget in San Diego, local residents should do their part to be prepared.

Have you traveled the San Diego County back roads lately and seen all the wonderful green on the hills? It looks beautiful now but once the summer heat and winds arrive, that pretty foliage will be converted into potential fuel for another out of control wildfire.

According to a recent article in the San Diego Union Tribune, the "Winter rains that brought much needed moisture to the region also triggered abundant grass growth that top fire officials say puts the county at an increased fire risk this summer. Even swaths that burned in the 2003 and 2007 firestorms aren’t safe because of the re-growth."

"Anything that can burn, will burn under the worst conditions," said Carlton Joseph, fire chief for the Cleveland National Forest.

Are you ready?

In addition to making your property fire safe by cutting back brush, removing wood fences and wood structures, and eliminating wood shingles, San Diego residents also need to:

1) Check insurance coverage - are they properly insured?

2) Determine if your home inventory list up to date

3) Have an evacuation plan (including data back up)

Check Your Insurance Coverage

Every year, the costs to rebuild go up. Is your homeowner's insurance policy coverage keeping up with the increases in building and construction costs? If your home does burn down, will your insurance policy cover the new codes and building regulations? Many policies are limited to just rebuilding what you are already have.

In the two big previous San Diego wildfires, the 2007 Witch fire and the 2003 Cedar fire, many homeowners discovered after the fact that their policies were out of date and they were under-insured.

Even with the threat of wild fire danger, we believe that most San Diego County homeowners are still under insured. According to most insurance companies, it is the responsibility of the homeowner to determine the appropriate levels of insurance for their property, not your insurance agent. An agent or broker cannot know the value of your property and your possessions as well as you can.

You have to take the responsibility to properly insure your house.

Review your policy to see what kind of coverage you have. Do you have Replacement Cost or Actual Cash Value? Guaranteed Replacement Cost is the best but also the most expensive. Remember, don't base the replacement cost limits on the amount of your mortgage.

When examining your existing policy, make sure that all of your personal property is correctly insured. Do you have extensive or expensive landscaping, trees, plants or shrubs that need to have higher limits? Determining the actual replacement cost value of your property is not easy or simple. Make sure your agent does the work.

By the way, you can click here for more information and to get a free Homeowners Insurance Guide Checklist.

How to Know What You Might Need to Replace?

Every year, you and your family should update your home inventory list. This is a list of all the items that your family owns that you would want reimbursement for should your home burn down.

In addition to large items like furniture, appliances, major electronics, cars, boats, etc., this should also include clothing, pots and pans, seasonal items, tools, cameras, jewelry and all the other property that you and your family own in the house.

After a disaster, one of the biggest challenges people face is preparing a list of their personal property destroyed in the fire. What was it worth?

Even in the best of times, you will find that you cannot remember everything or the specific details. Now add in the stress of disaster, desperately searching for a place to live, and just getting to work every day, and you can see how recollecting the details of your lost belongings, what they were, how much they cost, and when you got them, can be an almost insurmountable task.

Preparation can provide a little peace of mind. You can download a free Home Inventory List from San Diego's Quality Claims Management, and work from that. You can supplement the list with still images and videos of the various items. A good technique is to go room by room, cataloging the various items and taking video or a picture of it. For example, when doing the bedrooms, take your items out of the shelves and the closets and place them on a bed and make a visual record. In the kitchen, pull out the various pots and pans, silverware and dining sets and seasonal items, and display them on a counter or a table for photographing.

You might want to make a family activity out of this and involve the kids as well, especially when documenting the items in their bedrooms, den and garage.

Enter all this info into your computer, along with the images, and burn a CD or two. Once the data is done, make sure you keep copies outside of the home. Maybe send one CD to a relative, put another in a safe deposit box. It doesn't make sense to have your inventory list burn up with the rest of your possessions.

Offsite storage should also extend to your computers and the info they contain. In addition to storing back up drives, CDs and data outside your house, there are a variety of free online back up services. Do an Internet search for "Free Online Back Up". Several of these businesses offer free storage of up to 2 gigs. For a few dollars a month, many services enable you to regularly back up all your information so it is protected.

Have an Evacuation Plan.

Begin by reviewing your insurance policy. What kinds of emergency help are you entitled to?

Most insurance policies provide coverage for you and your family to stay in a residence similar in size and quality to your current residence. During a wildfire, or right after your home is destroyed, is not the best time to start thinking about this. Every year or two, look around and identify nearby hotels that may be available in an emergency. Is it big enough for you and your family? Is the location convenient to schools and work? Is it kid friendly? If you have pets, especially large ones, can you take them there?

If your pets are too large or too exotic for a hotel, what will you do with them? Prepare a list of various boarding facilities and stables that could possibly take your animals in case of a disaster.

Finally, how is your family going to evacuate? Who is going to take what? Depending on the ages of your children and whether or not they have cars, you might want to assign responsibility for the family possessions to specific individuals. If the kids are in school during a fire, what is going to happen? If mom is off on a business trip when a wildfire event happens, who will evacuate what?

If the family gets separated, where is everyone going to meet? Who is responsible for the pets? If you live in a fire danger zone, it makes sense to sit down periodically as a family and discuss these matters.

This summer - 2010 - may be a hot one. Hopefully, San Diego will not be torched by any wildfires. But it is always wise to be prepared. You will be able to sleep a lot better knowing that your family, your home and your possessions are adequately protected.

* Make sure you have an evacuation plan.

* Make sure your inventory list is up to date and all your important information, photos, videos and other data are backed up somewhere outside of your home.

* Contact your insurance agent to make sure that your have appropriate insurance and adequate coverage for your property.


Ron Reitz - About the Author:

Ronald R. Reitz, CPPA, President of Quality Claims Management,, pioneered the National Hazard Insurance Claims business of GMAC-RFC (now GMAC-ResCap). Mr. Reitz left GMAC-ResCap in January 2007 after ten years of managing the Insurance Services group. He is the past President of the California Association of Public Insurance Adjusters (CAPIA) and is currently an officer on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters (NAPIA) Recognized as a leading expert on hazard claims, he is serving on many industry panels, as well as providing consulting and training services industry-wide. Quality Claims Management Corporation provides hazard claim recovery services to investors, mortgage servicers, homeowners and businesses. All claims are adjusted by licensed insurance professionals for an equitable settlement and accelerated resolution timelines. Quality Claims is nationally licensed as Public Insurance Adjusters or Insurance Consultants and complies with Department of Insurance Regulations