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Texas Wildfires: Helpful Information for Handling and Preventing Damages

The state of Texas is currently battling an unprecedented amount of wildfires caused by the worst drought the state has encountered since the 1950s. As a result, many Texans across the state have lost both their homes and property in the blazes.

Everyone here at the Amaro Law Firm extends their thoughts and prayers to all those affected by the fires. Accordingly, the Amaro Law Firm has provided the following information to assist Texans in dealing with the threat and aftermath of wildfires, as well as answering common questions regarding damage preventing measures and wildfire insurance claims. Due to the expected continuation of these drought conditions into the late fall season, this article may provide you with helpful information to minimize any potential losses even if your property is not in an immediate threat of danger.

What Causes Wildfires?

The state of Texas reports that 90 percent of wildfires are started by humans. Studies have shown that Texas has severe wildfire seasons because of low levels of precipitation and high daily temperatures combined with an abundance of vegetation that easily ignites on dry and windy days. Accordingly, during the dry months of the year state officials urge caution when burning debris, building campfires, grilling outdoors, and disposing of cigarette butts.

How Can I Be Sure My Insurance Will Cover Damage From A Wild Fire Before It Happens?

It is always a good idea to keep an inventory of all the property which might be possibily damaged in a fire. It is important to keep this list somewhere secure so that it will not be destroyed in the flames. In fact, you might consider e-mailing the inventory to yourself to ensure your access to it wherever you are in the event you lose your property. Further, take photos or videotape of each room and the exterior of your home to keep with your inventory. In the case you must evacuate due to wildfire, try to gather all important documents (i.e. homeowners insurance policies, health insurance cards, inventories) so that they are not destroyed in the blaze. Click
here to view the Texas Department of Insurance's inventory check list sheet.

Further, you should be familiar with your insurance policy coverages. Also, make certain your homeowners or commercial property coverage is current and that it provides adequate coverage to pay the full replacement cost of your property and contents. Auto insurance may also be applicable, check your auto policy to see if you have comprehensive coverage "other than collision." Comprehensive coverage will compensate you if a storm, fire, or flood damages your car. Ask you insurance agent how much coverage you have for "additional living expenses" to cover lodging, food and other expenses if you're forced to vacate your residence after suffering a covered loss while you wait to rebuild.

Also, it is important to know your policy limits of your insurance coverage. Contact your agent and check the limits of your policies. For homeowners policies, ask about limits for contents, buildings, and alternative living expenses. Your limits may be too low if replacement costs have risen because of new additions, improvements, or inflation. You should also review your health coverage. Find out if you'll be able to receive non-emergency care from out-of-network providers, if needed, without accruing additional out-of-pocket expenses.

Many people choose to rent their home. A landlord's insurance policy usually covers the house or building, but not the personal property of the building's tenants. If you rent an apartment, duplex, house, or townhouse, you may need renters insurance to protect your belongings. Renter's insurance can usually be purchased for a low monthly premium.

You also might consider business interruption coverage. Business interruption coverage compensates you for lost income and certain operating expenses if you are forced to vacate your business because of a loss covered in your policy.

What Should I Do If I Am Ordered To Evacuate?

First, decide in advance under what circumstances you will evacuate your home. Whenever local authorities recommend evacuation, you should leave. The advice of authorities is based on experience and knowledge of the wildfire and its potential for destruction. Remember that wildfires spread fast. You should monitor the news for timely evacuation information. Also, learn all routes leading out of your house and out of your neighborhood to get you to safety as quickly as possible as you will not be the only one evacuating.

Next, work out a way for family members to communicate if you are separated. Remember that in a severe wild fire, local phone service may be disrupted. You might ask a friend or relative who lives outside your immediate area to serve as a point of contact. It is also a good idea to fill your gasoline tank to prepare to evacuate. Park your car facing the direction of escape and roll up the windows.

What Can I Do To Protect My Property If I Am Ordered To Evacuate?

If you have time you should lock and secure the premises. Turn on outside lights and every room in the house. Take small valuables and important documents with you such as identification documents, irreplaceable photographs, and insurance documents. Close all doors inside the house and outside shutters, doors, windows, and vents. Remove flammable drapes and curtains. Disconnect any automatic garage door openers to enable them to be opened by hand. Close the garage doors.

Also, if you have time, prepare the outside of your home. Shut off natural gas, propane, or fuel oil supplies at the source. Connect garden houses. Fill pools, hot tubs, garbage cans, and any other outdoor containers with water. Wet down or remove shrubs within 15 feet of your residence. Keep firefighting tools handy such as ladder to reach the roof, shovel, rake and buckets. Place combustible patio furniture inside. Seal vents with pre-cut plywood or commercial seals. If you have livestock such as horses which cannot be removed in time, wet their manes and tails.

How Should I Deal With My Insurance Company After A Wildfire?

The first thing you should do is contact your insurance agent or company promptly to give them notice of your claims. Keep a record of all contacts you have with your insurance company. Also, be prepared to answer questions about the extent and severity of the damage, but it may be advisable to speak with an attorney prior to speaking with your insurance company. If you speak to your insurance company about your losses, you may request that they submit their questions in writing so that you have time to think and answer all the questions without the time pressures of being on a recorded conversation.

If your home is not insured, contact your local Red Cross or a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center for assistance. Disaster assistance is money or direct assistance to individuals, families, and businesses. It is meant to help you with critical expenses that cannot be covered in other ways. Call FEMA at 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).

Next, make a list of your damaged property. Photograph or videotape the damage if possible. Most homeowner's policies automatically cover furniture, clothes, appliances, etc. for damage caused by fire. Refer to your policy to determine the amount of personal property coverage you have. Do not throw away damaged items until your insurance adjuster has had a chance to view them and your own adjuster has had time to view them if you disagree with your insurance company's evaulations.

Also, make necessary repairs to protect your home and property from further damage. Your insurance polices may require you to "mitigate" your damages to the best of your ability. If there is partial damage to your home, take reasonable and necessary repairs to protect your home and property from further damage. Cover broken windows and holes to keep rain out. Keep a record of your repair expenses and save all receipts.

It is also important to know if you have replacement cost or actual cash value coverage. Replacement cost is what you would pay to rebuild or repair your home, based on current construction costs. Actual cash value is based on the replacement cost of the dwelling minus a deduction for depreciation. With replacement cost coverage, the company will pay you the actual cash value initially and after repairs are complete. If you have replacement cost coverage for personal property when your loss occurs, your loss will be paid on an actual cash value basis until the property is repaired or replaced.

Further, ask your insurance agent about additional living expenses (ALE) or loss of use. ALE may provide coverage for some of the expenses you incur if you are unable to live in your home because of damage from a covered peril. Most policies pay up to 20 percent of your home's insured value. Provide your insurance company with documentation regarding your expenses. Again, keep your receipts. When possible, the documentation should include the vendor, date, and amount. Remember that different insurance policies may have different coverages, limits, and procedures for reimbursement.

Next, refer to your policy to know what deductible you'll be required to pay. Most homeowner's policies contain two deductibles: one for windstorm and hail losses, and one for all other losses. Also, if you hire a public insurance adjuster, make sure the public adjuster is licensed by Texas Department of Insurance. Public insurance adjusters work independently and charge a fee for their services. Public insurance adjusters must disclose their fees in the written contract with you. To learn whether a public insurance adjuster is licensed, call TDI.

Is There Anything I Should Know About Resolving My Claim With My Insurance?

It is important to try to be present when the insurance company's adjuster inspects your damage. Be sure your address is visible. If damage forces you to move, leave a note or a plywood sign with your temporary address, phone number and name of your insurance company. Videotape their inspection in case you disagree with the way they are handling your claim later.

Your insurance company must acknowledge that it has begun an investigation within 15 days of receiving your claim. The company may request additional information to settle your claim. Once it has that information, the company must accept or reject your claim within 15 business days or tell you why it needs more time. If the Commissioner of Insurance designates the event as a major catastrophe, the claim handling deadlines are extended for an additional 15 days. Once a settlement is reached, the company has five business days to mail you a check. If you do not receive your payment promptly, call your agent.

It's also important to work with reputable contractors. Ask contractors for references and verify them. Contact your Better Business Bureau, local police, or chamber of commerce for information. Insist on an itemized contract in writing and pay only as work is completed. The Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act prohibits price gouging once the governor has declared an area a disaster area. Call the Office of the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Hot Line, 1-800-337-3928, if you suspect price gouging or any other deceptive business practice.

In conclusion, if you feel your insurance company has treated you unfairly or refused to compensate you for legitimate damages caused by the wildfires in Texas, please feel free to call our offices at 713-864-1941 or toll-free at 877-292-8797 for a free consultation and evaluation of any potential claims you may have agains them. You can also contact us through our website or email us here.