3. Safely inspect your property after a fire.
Even after authorities have deemed the area safe, you should take precautions when returning home. While driving through your neighborhood, call 911 if you notice any unstable power lines, charred trees, smoldering debris, ash pits, or live embers. These hazards can spark new fires, and local law and fire authorities will address them as fast as possible, McLean says.
Before setting foot on your property, ensure that you are dressed properly in long pants, sturdy boots, and long-sleeved shirts. Bring gloves to handle debris, and don a two-strap dust particulate mask or an N95 mask to avoid breathing harmful particles in the air. “Personally, I would check out the property before bringing children along," McLean adds. "There are a lot of hazards in fire zones and it’s not a safe situation for kids.”
While inspecting your property, look for the same hazards as you did on your drive in. Ash pits can be difficult to spot, and they can remain hot long after a fire has subsided. Telltale signs of an ash pit include the presence of white ash on the ground and swarms of insects that are attracted to the smell of the fire. Contact your local fire department to extinguish any ash pits you find. You can stop anything else that’s still smoking or smoldering with water.
The American Red Cross also advises returnees to beware of damaged trees. Burns and scorch marks along the trunk and roots indicate the tree may be unstable and need to be removed so it doesn’t unexpectedly fall. When in doubt, have a professional inspect nearby trees.
It's generally up to the homeowner to confirm that his or her home is safe for occupation, McLean says, and “even if it’s still standing, it might have smoke or water damage.” To determine if your dwelling is safe to live in again, McLean recommends contacting qualified health and environmental safety experts to conduct an assessment.
Before entering your home, the American Red Cross advises you drench the outside and yard with water from a garden hose if safe to do so to mitigate any dust particles in the air, which can irritate the lungs. (Most dust masks only filter out larger particles and do not trap fine particulate matter.) According to McLean, wetting down your property can also alert you to any hotspots or ash pits, which will smoke when wet.
Reid also recommends sending one adult into the home to inspect all rooms, including the attic and crawl space. Be cautious of dust, ash, broken glass, sharp objects, and other hazards. While you’re on-site, leave doors and windows open near any wild animals that sought refuge in your home to help them escape.
4. Inspect your utility services.
Emergency officials and local utility providers will determine whether water, electricity, and gas services are generally safe to use in your neighborhood, McLean says. However, assuring the safety of utilities on a private property is the homeowner’s responsibility, because every home may be affected differently by a wildfire.
Most electric companies will share updates on the status of power in the area with their customers, Reid says. If there is power in your home, turn it off at the main fuse box or circuit breaker and keep it off until you’ve completed a thorough inspection of the property. Look for broken or frayed wires, breakers that may have been tripped, and evidence of sparks or burns. If the main breaker is on but there’s no power, or if you notice any water on the floor near your main fuse or breaker, turn it off and contact your utility provider. In general, if you have any safety concerns, contact your provider or a licensed electrician.
Gas leaks are common in fire zones because the heat can damage pipes. If you smell natural gas on your property, “get outside immediately and call your utility provider,” says McLean. Do not proceed with fire cleanup or use any electricity until the provider has notified you that it’s safe to do so. If you have a propane tank or heating oil system, contact your supplier and keep all valves turned off until it has been inspected.
If you suspect that sewage lines or water pipes have been damaged, avoid using the sinks, showers, and toilets in your home, and turn off the water at the main valve until a plumber can inspect the system, the American Red Cross advises.
Wildfires can affect drinking water, in the short- and long-term. Do not drink or use water from your property until emergency officials and your community’s water system have given the all clear. Contact your provider for confirmation that the water is safe to drink, as needed.
If your water comes from a private well or surface water source, McLean recommends taking a sample to a certified laboratory to test its safety. Changes in the appearance, clarity, color, smell, and taste indicate that the water has likely been impacted by wildfire.
5. Document losses and damage due to the wildfire.
Do not remove anything inside or outside your home until after you have talked with your insurance agent. “The worst thing you can do is start throwing things away,” Reid says.
Take photos and videos of everything, including your landscaping and vehicles. Put together a list of damaged belongings to send to the adjuster assigned to your case.
“There’s so much insurance fraud out there that the more you touch, the more ambiguity there will be,” Reid says.
Standard home insurance policies cover damage to the structure, landscaping, and the homeowner’s items in the event of a wildfire. The amount your insurance company covers depends on your policy, so check with your insurance agent if you are unsure what your policy covers.