Insurance Academy

6 Critical Wildfire Preparation Recommendations

By Patrick Wraight | Academy Journal Blog | May 17, 2017

This morning while I’m sitting in my office writing this post, I’m thinking about wildfires. According to the ArcGIS website, there are 24 active wildfires in the US. 17 of them are in the state of Florida. That includes the West Mims fire that started in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge area in south Georgia. This fire, which has been active since April 6 and has burned over 152,000 acres, is on my mind in part because it’s only 25 miles or so from my home.

Of course, that made the insurance and risk management part of my brain kick in. I had to ask, what do other insurance professionals need to know about wildfire (and fire risk in general) to better serve their customers? These are just a few thoughts that you might be able to take to some of your clients. We are looking specifically at people who are at risk of wildfire, which means that your customers may have some warning before the fire strikes. Some of these suggestions may not apply to a “normal” house fire (if there is such a thing). Here are six critical preparation recommendations. The rest of this post is written to speak to your customers. Feel free to use it when you have these conversations with them.

Get a fire resistant safe. We all have important documents: birth certificates, marriage licenses, deeds to our homes, insurance policies, etc. Where do many people store them? They go anywhere from the bottom of a drawer of filing cabinet to some shoe box in the top of one of the closets. You don’t want to try and find these papers after you hear on the news that there are mandatory evacuations in your area. They need to be in one place, in a fire resistant safe, which can be in the spare bedroom closet. It’s even better if you get a safe that you can pack in the car with you. That way stuff is protected from fire and taken out of the way, too. A fire resistant safe is available from any major big box store for less than $50.

Put irreplaceable items in one place. Everyone has stuff that can’t be replaced. We’re talking about pictures, old videos, even heirloom items. OK. No one is going to store their grandmother’s jewelry in the same place where they store the last 50 years of family pictures. Fine. We recommend that you have one place for those family heirlooms, and another place for pictures, videos, etc. Wherever you put it all, make sure that you know where it is. If you have specific locations for that stuff, you can pack it up and get out quickly if you have to.

Backup your data. If you don’t have some kind of backup for all of your electronic data, stop reading right now and start shopping for cloud storage for your data. Do it. Almost no one has taken pictures using old school film in over a decade. Our sister-in-law has never taken pictures of her children with anything except a camera on her mobile phone. Neither has anyone else. My wife has hundreds if not thousands of pictures on her computer. We have ten years of resumes, school papers, scanned documents, and more all saved on hard drives. All of that data needs to be backed up. We will not complain if you have on site backup disks that automatically update. At least with those, you can pick up the drive and take it with you if you need to. The best solution is a service that provides real time online cloud backups. Your digital life is important enough for you to keep safe.

Obey local emergency management. We have friends who live in the path of the West Mims fire. They were told to evacuate their home and get to safety. They declined to do so. I get it. They didn’t want to just let their home go up in smoke. They dug some fire breaks and turned the sprinklers on. After a day or so, they were out of danger so it turned out ok. They did what they thought was best and I respect that, but there’s a problem. If you fail to obey a lawful evacuation order, you forfeit help from emergency services. If something happened and they tried to escape at the last minute, there may be no help coming. Remember the fire safe and putting stuff in one spot? That’s so that if the evacuation order comes, you can get irreplaceable stuff out quickly (including family and pets). By the way, if you are hearing that evacuation plans are being considered, we have a related preparation step.

Have a plan. When I was in the early years of school, we had fire safety month. We watched the videos, saw the firetrucks, and had the firefighters come to our school. There was the one day that they talked about having a plan to get out of the house and where to meet and all of that. That’s still good advice today. If you’re in an area where they are considering evacuations, you have to step up that plan. Get everyone to pack a bug-out bag. Everyone will need at least 3 changes of clothes, a week’s worth of medications, mobile phone chargers (and portable charging devices if you have them). You’ll also need to prepack all of those irreplaceable items that you can fit and take with you (including your onsite backups). Give everyone instructions where they should go in the event of an evacuation. Have a communication plan. Communication and clarity defeats confusion and chaos.

Finance your risk. Buy the right insurance and put your deductible in the bank. If you have a mortgage on your home, the bank has already made you buy insurance. If not, you may have decided that you didn’t want to pay for the insurance. What you’re saying with that is that you don’t want to pay the $300/month. You would rather risk losing your $200,000 home and having no way of replacing it or the $75,000 worth of stuff in your home. You’re saving less than $4,000/year and risking probably $300,000. That doesn’t seem to be the best trade off, especially if you live in an area where wildfires happen. By the way, if you rent, you have even less of an excuse. Tenants’ contents policies can be a few hundred dollars annually. If you have insurance, you have protection if something happens to your house and stuff. You also have money for additional living expenses and you may even have coverage to provide a place to stay if you are evacuated.

Say thanks. My son works at a popular fast service chicken place. He sees these crews every day and takes a moment to thank them. Wildland firefighters put themselves at risk to protect life and property and there are crews in this area working 8-12 hour shifts every day to get this fire under control. This isn’t risk management, it’s being a good person. Just say thanks.

This is an opportunity to build relationships with your customers. Help them to have a better perspective on how you are want to serve them, not just sell them insurance. Help them to know that you see what’s important to them and that it’s important to you, too.

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