What Do You Do When Your House Burns Down?

Aug 1, 2014

A fire - whether it be a house fire or a wildfire - can cause insurmountable damage to buildings.
Credit arsheffield / https://www.flickr.com/photos/arsheffield/

 Wildfire have been destroying property – and lives – across the Northwest for the past month and that got us wondering: what do you do if your home or property is damaged in a fire? Here are precautions and steps to take.

Safety First

First and foremost, make sure you and those around you are safe. It should go without saying, but follow evacuation policies and stay away from the fire. The Carlton Complex Fire claimed one man’s life as he tried to save his home from the fire. It may be hard to leave your home, but think of your personal safety first.

After you leave your property, search for local relief services. The Weather Channel lists services to look for within the first 24 hours, including food, temporary housing and medical attention.


Insurance companies may offer an advance on payouts for necessities such as clothing, food, and hygiene products. But you'll need to save your receipts - they'll be compared to the value of goods you lost in the fire.

Sometimes evacuations are rushed and necessities are not collected. If this is the case, you may be able to get an advance for buying hygiene products, clothes and other basic needs. Legal site Nolo says you can ask your insurance company for an advance against your eventual claim. Just be sure to keep receipts of your purchases because they will be compared to what you lost in the fire. This means you can’t go out and buy the most expensive outfit – you will end up paying the difference.

Returning Home

Before returning home, the fire department must first deem it safe. Even if the fire looks like it is out, it could easily start again. Fires can smolder long after flames die.

The remains of this structure shows the typical damage of a fire.
Credit christopdesoto / https://www.flickr.com/photos/christopdesoto/

The United States Fire Administration says to ask your agent about actions to take to protect your home, such as pumping water and covering openings like doors and windows. Normally, if any water or gas lines are a danger to the property, the fire department will cut them off before declaring it safe to reenter the premises.

Insurance agents will ask you to detail the damage to the home and property. Typically, this includes taking pictures, video and inventory of all damage - including smoke damage. The Property Casualty Insurers (PCI) Association of America recently released this five-step recovery plan for homeowners.

  1. Contact your insurer and file a claim.
  2. Make a home inventory.
  3. Work closely with the claims adjuster.
  4. Understand your coverage and ask plenty of questions.
  5. Always use a licensed contractor.

What not to do? Seattle’s Q13 Fox News says it’s important not to discard damaged items. Doing this could mean missing out on coverage for the item when your adjuster surveys it.

Q13 also says not to pay a significant amount of money for temporary repairs unless authorized by your insurance. If the repairs are deemed excessive, you could be left paying the bills.  

Insurance Policies

According to the Insurance Information Institute, a standard homeowners insurance policy includes four types of coverage, but the two most prominent in fire damages are coverage of the structure of the home and coverage of personal belongings.

When it comes to personal belongings, insurance companies include jewelry, clothing and silverware as well as trees and plants. Most companies provide 50 to 70 percent of the insurance as coverage on personal belongings (meaning if you have $100,000 worth of insurance, $50,000 to $70,000 would go towards your belongings). Of course, this is all personalized with individual plans.

Returning To Normal

After the shock and initial chaos of the fire dies down, it can be a hard transition to return to a normal life. If your house or property is salvageable, make sure you take proper steps in ventilate and clean your house.