Wildfire Recovery: Insurance Tips for California Homeowners

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With 33 active fires and 3.6 million acres burned, including the largest in California history, tens of thousands of Californians have been displaced by the ongoing wildfires. They will need help getting back on their feet when they are finally able to return home.

On today’s Rage for Justice Report podcast, I interviewed Amy Bach, the executive director of the nonprofit United Policyholders. Her website is California’s – and perhaps the country’s – best resource for detailed how-to guides on what to do when disaster strikes.

Here are a few of the things I learned from Amy about the insurance claims process, and links to these tips in detail through United Policyholders’ “Road to Recovery” program.

1.    First steps after a fire

Take care of your family’s needs first. Find temporary housing, ask your insurance company for cash advances to cover it, and keep all your receipts.

2.    Returning to a home that’s still standing

Even if your home survives a blaze, there can be unseen damage. Heavy smoke, nearby flames and extreme heat can impact a home’s air quality and create health hazards that you may not be able to see or smell. Safety experts can help you figure out if it is safe to move back in after a wildfire.

3.    Starting the insurance claims process

Get a copy of your insurance policy, and focus on calculating the total value of your damaged or destroyed property and understanding the maximum insurance benefits that are available to you. Be polite, but firm, in your interactions with the insurance company. Document everything, including dates and details of phone conversations. Make all requests or complaints in writing.

Californians have added protections because the current fires are a “California declared disaster.” That means you should get a cash advance from your insurer of 25% of the contents limit of your policy, and 4 months of your “Additional Living Expense” coverage. This many fires at the same time means that many insurance adjusters come in from out of State, and don’t know our rules. This bulletin from the California Department of Insurance gives you the evidence you need to demand these rights. 

4.    How to get fully reimbursed for your losses.

Remember, the insurance adjuster may be sympathetic, but he or she works for the insurance company, not you. Be pro-active about documenting the scope of your losses as a starting point to negotiate a settlement. Be specific: How many rooms, what kind of finishes, what kind of windows, etc. Get two independent estimates, and don’t forget the increased material costs that follow every disaster. Negotiate a settlement of your claim with the insurance company that will cover the true costs of replacing or repairing your damaged property. Consider getting professional help if the insurance company makes a low-ball offer and refuses to negotiate.



Carmen Balber
Carmen Balber
Consumer Watchdog executive director Carmen Balber has been with the organization for nearly two decades. She spent four years directing the group’s Washington, D.C. office where she advocated for key health insurance market reforms that were ultimately enacted into law as part of the Affordable Care Act.

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