The most troubling reason California showed up in the news last year was its spate of dangerous and damaging fires. In October, wildfires raged through Northern California, while Southern California suffered through its own damaging fires just two months later, in December. Accuweather predicts last year’s fire season will cost California more than $180 billion in damages.
The biggest tragedy from these fires is, of course, the loss of human life, followed by the displacement of families from their homes and the loss of property. California’s 2017 fires took over 40 lives, forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate and destroyed over 1,000 structures.
For those who survived and are now picking up the pieces, recovery can be extremely expensive, especially without insurance. Regardless of whether it’s a California fire emblazoned by the Santa Ana winds or a short-lived blaze caused by an falling candle, it’s important to know just what causes wildfires, how to best to prevent them and to protect against the losses they bring, at least the financial ones.
Drought and Fire Risks
While large wildfires that consume thousands of acres are rare, smaller fires can occur almost anywhere. Some areas, such as Georgia, are increasingly experiencing drought, which makes wildfires far more likely. Seasonal droughts are commonplace, of course, with most regions across the U.S. having both wet and dry seasons. According to the data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of the country experiences at least a moderate amount of drought, particularly during the winter months.
It’s easy, too, to misinterpret what a drought means. A few good rains are seldom sufficient to cure a drought. Under drought conditions, an area will receive lower amounts of rain than is necessary to keep the ground saturated and groundwater replenished. Quite often, this means even if the surface you see appears to be damp, it may not be saturated to the degree needed to prevent a wildfire from starting.
Though some areas are far more prone to drought than others, that doesn’t mean any state is necessarily drought-free. While California experiences droughts all year long, other states, like Florida, have a dry season in which fires are more prevalent; in the Sunshine State, that season runs from October to April. Even during that time, drought conditions across the state can vary widely, making it extremely important to pay close attention to weather reports.
Fire damage during droughts can be severe. In the past two years alone, fires have caused billions of dollars in damages across the U.S., including devastation to the Southeastern states in 2016. In all, thousands of properties were damaged and lost. And while U.S. Fire Administration data shows a downward trend since 2006 in the number of fires, deaths, injuries, and monetary losses caused by blazes, damages have actually been on the rise in recent years. In fact, 2015 saw $14.5 billion in losses due to fires, up from $11.6 billion in 2014.
Fire Safety for Drought Season
It’s important to follow proper fire safety procedures during a drought. Outdoor fires can quickly get out of hand if the fire is not properly controlled. And while wildfires can and do happen naturally (such as those sparked by lightning), most are not natural. According to the National Park Service, 90% of wildfires are caused by humans.
Although arson is one of the most common causes, wildfires may also be caused by general carelessness, such as tossing cigarette butts into dry brush, leaving campfires unattended or allowing unintended sparks to escape from equipment.
When handling fires outdoors, a few important tips to keep in mind:
- Keep an 8-10 foot radius around your fire, and ensure that the area where the fire is placed is clear of any low-hanging branches.
- Check to make sure the area where you’re creating the fire is clear of material that could easily burn and spread.
- Always have enough water nearby should the fire begin to spread.
- Try to have your fire attended by someone who is well-versed on fire safety.
- Always put out your fire using both water and dirt. Then swirl the embers around to help douse any material that could ignite again.
- Pay attention to wind conditions. If the area is particularly windy and dry, it may be wise to avoid starting a fire at all as the embers may spread beyond your control.
Additionally, pay close attention to drought warnings for your area. There may be times when the drought is so severe that all outdoor burning is disallowed until further notice. Starting a fire under those conditions is not only dangerous, but typically illegal. Even starting a wildfire accidentally could expose you to serious consequences.
Protect Against Losses with Fire Insurance
With most of the country susceptible to wildfires, many people should think of fire insurance as a necessity to protect your most valuable assets against Mother Nature. If you own a home and have homeowners insurance, there’s a very good chance that a wildfire or any other type of fire is covered under your policy. Fire will be considered a “covered peril.” The same will likely hold true if you own a business property and have property insurance coverage.
In either case, it’s important to properly catalog the value of your assets and to keep that list regularly updated with your insurance provider. Having too little insurance coverage can result in receiving far less than you expected, or need, in the event of a fire. If you made changes to your home or other properties, this information should also be reported to your provider as soon as possible.
Additionally, you should confirm what your insurance will and won’t cover relating to a fire. And if you’re concerned about what will happen during the rebuilding process, look into whether your insurance provides additional coverage to help reimburse you for living expenses during that time.
Nature is unpredictable, but human nature even more so. It’s important to stay safe during dry seasons, but also to protect your assets in case the unexpected, and fiery, should happen.
Maxime Rieman is Product Manager at ValuePenguin. Educating and assisting shoppers about financial products has been Rieman's focus, which led her to joining ValuePenguin, a consumer research and advice company based in New York. Previously, she was product marketing director at CoverWallet and launched the personal insurance team at NerdWallet.
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