Extreme droughts and changing climates mean wildfires are the new normal, and homeowners should be prepared. The Western United States is currently experiencing a megadrought — trending to be the worst in a 1,200-year period analyzed in a recent study out of Columbia University — that is expected to ignite an intense and early wildfire season.
While almost half of the country is experiencing worsening drought conditions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one state in particular is really heating up. “The reality is in California, this drought is going to get worse before it gets better,” says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA who contributed to a 2020 study that found climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme wildfire conditions across California.
Here’s what you should know to prepare yourself, your family and your home for wildfires.
Have an emergency plan
Safety should be your first priority. The American Red Cross recommends people tune in to local radio or TV stations to stay informed on wildfires in the area and have an evacuation plan.
Be sure to also have an emergency kit packed and ready. “If you have to evacuate, chances are you’re not going to have much notice,” says Nicole Maul, regional communications director for the American Red Cross. Maul recommends filling a backpack with essentials like water, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a hand-crank radio and some extra cash.
Protect your home with defensible space
There should be at least 100 feet between your home and any wild brush, if at all possible. This “defensible space” provides room for firefighters to battle wildfires and keeps flames from getting too close to your home. You can create defensible space by removing anything flammable located directly next to your home, like tall grass or shrubs, mowing your lawn regularly and not planting evergreens that may easily catch fire.
Homes catch fire in a few ways: from wildfire flames, heat from vegetation burning nearby and flying embers from wildfires burning up to a mile away. To help protect your property, try these “home hardening” tips from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection:
- Cover all vent openings with metal mesh.
- Remove debris from your roof and gutters.
- Box in your eaves with nonflammable materials.
Keep a fire extinguisher, a shovel and a hose available in case there is a fire on your property.
Know what insurance covers
Damage from wildfire and smoke is covered by most homeowners or renters insurance policies, but only up to your coverage limits. Meanwhile, car damage from wildfires is covered by comprehensive insurance, an optional auto coverage typically sold with collision coverage.
If you’ve made any changes to your living space since you last spoke with your carrier, like an expensive art purchase or an addition to your home, let your insurer know. You may need to increase your personal property or dwelling limits to be fully covered.
If you live in a high-risk area for wildfires, you may need to purchase separate fire insurance through your state’s Fair Access to Insurance Requirements Plan to be sure you’re covered. In most states, FAIR policies offer coverage in high-risk areas for damage from fire, vandalism, windstorms and riots. For more coverage, like liability coverage typically included in standard homeowners policies, you’ll need additional insurance from a private insurer.
Additional living expense coverage
Many people don’t realize homeowners insurance can help with temporary living expenses while your home is being repaired or rebuilt due to wildfire damage, according to Kevin Daley, president of the Western U.S. zone at Pure Insurance. Known as additional living expenses or loss of use coverage, this part of a standard policy will pay for things like hotels, restaurant bills and even pet boarding fees that go beyond your normal costs of living.
Loss of use coverage is typically included in a homeowners policy but comes with a limit, usually a percentage of the policy’s total dwelling coverage.
Extended replacement cost coverage
Your dwelling coverage will pay only enough to rebuild your home up to its replacement value, which may not be enough. Joe Gilmartin, an independent insurance agent in California, has seen building contractors charge more for construction after wildfires, and extended replacement cost coverage may help cushion the increase.
Check whether your policy has this optional coverage, which pays out more than the face value of your dwelling coverage, up to a specified amount. Extended replacement cost insurance can “help keep up with the cost of building material [and] the cost of inflation,” Gilmartin says.
Help is available
If you've been affected by wildfires and need help, many organizations offer relief for disaster victims, including:
- Airbnb’s Open Homes program, which lets people offer their space to those in need of emergency housing during a disaster.
- The California Fire Foundation, which provides financial and emotional support to firefighters and their families.
- RedRover Responders, an organization that provides care and shelter to animals displaced by natural disasters.
- The American Red Cross, which offers food and shelter to disaster victims.