This article was updated August 25, 2020.
A natural disaster of any kind can drastically change your life, and the unprecedented blazes racing through Northern California are no exception.
Hundreds of structures have been damaged or destroyed while the wildfires continue to cause incomprehensible devastation to the region.
The road to recovery will be long and difficult, but if you or your loved ones have been impacted by a fire, know that there are relief organizations, lawyers, and other counselors here to help you along the way.
We asked these seasoned attorneys what steps you should take if you’ve been affected by the recent fires.
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There are a lot of people who have been displaced by the recent fires. Many are overwhelmed about what they should do. What should be the first steps someone takes once they are safe?
Martin: The very first step is to start the very painful process of putting together an inventory. It’s difficult to start, but at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that putting your life back together is a business decision. In order to provide as much detail as possible to their insurance companies, people need to take inventory of all of their belongings—down to spoons, kitchen utensils, socks, clothing items, family heirlooms, photographs, automobiles, and even the contents of the garage.
Mario: You don’t want to discount what you have, telling yourself, “I don’t want to make a claim for this or that item” because that is not how the insurance company will look at it. Their view is whether or not it’s covered and what the dollar amount is.
What damages are you able to claim if you are a victim of a fire?
Martin: That is a complex question. There are a variety of different damages, but working from what I believe are the larger damages to the small: Of course, loss of life, injuries, and property damage.
Property damage typically in these cases is going to come in the form of those items that are not covered by insurance but can be proven. There are so many types of insurance policies that are out there; so many different coverages that people pay for and acquire. Many people don’t understand what they actually have.
It’s very common that people who take out home insurance are typically underinsured or not insured at all, meaning that the insurance that they pay for is not going to cover all of the damages or any damages depending on the situation.
What is the process for filing insurance claims for a home, car, business, or other property that may have been damaged by fire, smoke, or water as a result of a blaze?
Martin: There are two main ways of reaching out to your insurance carrier:
1) Having a direct insurance agent or contact. This person is a good solid point of contact. They will have easy access to your policies, coverages and declaration papers that will show you all that is covered.
2) If you do not have a point of contact, you can reach out to the insurer directly by telephone. You can also document what has happened by email, fax, or letter. If you know your policy number, you can reach out to the carrier in writing, letting them know that you have suffered some level of fire-related damage, that you intend to pursue a claim, and that for now, you are looking for assistance in coverages under your policy.
What steps should you take to ensure that your damages are covered fairly and within your full legal rights?
Martin: Retain an attorney or competent legal counsel who is going to understand what it’s like to prosecute a claim against an insurance carrier, or potentially a third party, for damages. A lot of the damages such as property damages will be covered under the policy, but a lot of the damages are not, and that is very common.
Do you still have to pay your mortgage/rent/car note?
Martin: Yes. Unfortunately, in these situations, the obligation still remains in terms of a mortgage, car notes, and leases. Simply because this happened does not mean that the obligations stop. This is why it’s important to notify the insurance company right away of the loss.
If pets were harmed in the fire, will your insurance pay for veterinary treatment?
Martin: It really depends on the coverage on the insurance policy. Unfortunately, in most cases, the answer is no. Animals are considered property, so if an animal is killed or injured, the maximum recovery is the dollar value of that animal.
Is there any tax relief for fire victims?
Martin: There can be. There can be certain emergency relief measures and tax breaks. You would want to speak with a tax expert on handling losses from a fire on tax returns.
If you’re in need of temporary housing after being displaced, do you need to sign a lease?
Mario: This would be a private-party negotiation with the landlord and would depend on the landlord. I would recommend getting into a month-to-month arrangement for temporary housing, so that the tenant can get out with a 30-day notice. Ask for a short-term lease or for two-week notice to leave instead of 30-day notice. You don’t want to enter into anything long-term and get stuck in a lease if you’ll have the chance to go back to your home.
Martin: There are a lot of good insurance policies out there, but you have to pay for them. When you have a basic policy, temporary housing may not be provided. It is very important to read over your policy documents to know what you have covered.
What other legal documents should you prepare or replace after a fire?
Mario: Any legal documents should be redone: estate plans, marriage certificates, birth certificates. Any legal document you have, you should have more than one copy. You should have them in the cloud, in a fire safety box, or in other safe storage areas.
Martin: I would recommend, for preventive measures, having a fire safety box to hold your documents.
What have you learned from representing other fire victims?
Martin: Be patient. It is a long process that is going to be an emotional roller coaster. Finding an attorney that is going to hold your hand is the most important step. It’s important to have knowledgeable counsel who understands what information needs to be provided and what documents need to be filed.
What should people be asking but may not be thinking about in the immediate aftermath of a fire?
Martin: They need to think about their inventory—ALL of the inventory. You need to go through each room and create a detailed list of everything in that room. Keep coming back to it because you will remember items that you didn’t think about a few days before.
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.