What are the main issues landlords have during fire season?
There are several issues that landlords may prepare for in advance of fire season. The issues will vary depending on where the rental property is located. For instance, some areas that are not in danger of burning are still heavily impacted by poor air quality caused by wildfire smoke.
Landlords, generally, need to be mindful of the following issues during wildfire season:
Tenant safety: Ensure that all safety systems are in good working order and that all exits and emergency routes are clear. If a wildfire nears the property, it may be necessary to notify tenants by phone, or, if it's safe, in person.
Protecting property: In addition to maintaining the safety systems, cleaning up landscaping, brush, and debris that could fuel a fire is important all year round, but it becomes critical maintenance during fire season.
Safety certificates: Keeping up with inspections and safety certificates for important tools and systems like fire extinguishers, fire sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire escapes, and more, can provide some peace of mind that everything is in working order.
Insurance coverage: Reviewing your insurance coverage annually is smart as coverages or needs may change over time.
While there may be quite a bit to consider, much of it should be part of a regular maintenance plan.
How can landlords help tenants prepare for fire season?
The first step involves making your tenants aware when fire season starts and requesting each tenant update their contact information in case of emergency. Even if they are familiar with the area, they may not realize the property may be affected by a wildfire or an evacuation order. In multifamily properties, it may be helpful to request tenants volunteer to serve as emergency liaisons if there is no on site supervisor or property manager.
One important part of protecting a home from wildfire is cleaning up the surrounding yard. To ensure diligent maintenance, make a Maintenance Contract with a landscaping service and build the cost into the rent rather than relying on tenants to clear the yard.
Encourage your tenants to report possible health and safety problems with a Tenant Maintenance Request. For example, a drafty window or door might allow haze or smoke to diminish indoor air quality. Tenants may not know or realize that a landlord will make repairs when needed, or they may be worried about getting evicted if they make too many requests. Encouraging tenants to make repair and maintenance requests whenever an issue arises can help ease those concerns.
You may want to schedule annual inspections prior to fire season by making a Landlord's Notice to Enter.
Are landlords liable for a tenant's personal property damaged by wildfire?
Generally, landlords are not liable for damage to a tenant's personal property caused by wildfires or other natural disasters. Additionally, a landlord's insurance policy for a rental unit may not cover a tenant's belongings. Tenants should obtain renters insurance to cover their personal property.
There may be limited circumstances where a tenant can claim a landlord's negligence caused damage or made it worse. For example, if a landlord improperly stores highly flammable items on the property, or there is a known hazard on the property that causes the wildfire, these could lead to liability. Landlords may want to consider reviewing their liability insurance coverage for these types of claims with an attorney.
What can a landlord do if a tenant will not evacuate during a wildfire?
A landlord generally is not responsible or liable for ensuring a tenant evacuates during an emergency. It is good practice to inform your tenants if they are in an evacuation area about what sources to follow for evacuation orders. Local law enforcement, the fire department, or another government agency may take note of those refusing to evacuate to either encourage them to leave or to check on them after the fire passes. If you know a tenant is refusing to evacuate during a wildfire, you may want to notify the authorities in your area for their own safety.
In some situations, a tenant will not want to evacuate over financial concerns. If local law requires you to waive rent during a mandatory evacuation or if you voluntarily do so, remind tenants reluctant to leave of this incentive. You may also provide information about evacuation shelters or other available services.
What happens to the lease if wildfire damages the rental property?
The landlord's responsibilities and tenant's rights depend on the extent of damage. For minor damage, you may be able to make repairs within a reasonable time.
For major damage that leaves the property uninhabitable, the Lease Agreement may dictate what happens, or you may want to make an Agreement to Cancel Lease to allow the tenant to easily vacate. Typically, a tenant has the right to break the lease without penalty or receive a rent abatement until the property's habitability is restored. The landlord generally is not responsible for a tenant's moving costs or increased living expenses after a disaster. In some situations, such as when features or amenities will be reduced after repairs, or there will be an extended repair period, it may be appropriate to make a Lease Amendment.
To learn more about how to prepare for a natural disaster, or your legal obligations due to a wildfire, talk to a Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorney or download the Rocket Lawyer Mobile App.
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.