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FAQs for Surviving Wildfire Losses

Robin Olson | August 18, 2023

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Wildfire approaching homes

The insurance industry is built on preventing disasters and assisting people in responding to them when they do occur. We recognize during these trying times that our industry helps with lives and livelihoods, and we have consolidated tips and frequently asked questions (FAQs) to help affected homeowners, agents, and other property owners who should take immediate steps to begin recovering their losses. This matter is more complicated and challenging given the enormity of the wildfires on the Maui island of Hawaii. These fires are the deadliest natural disaster in state history, and they have killed over 100 people, as well as more than 100 that are still unaccounted for. The economic impact of this fire is expected to be enormous—in the megabillions of dollars.

Remember that more than one insurance company may handle your fire losses. Many types of policies may apply, including personal auto, commercial auto, homeowners, and commercial property.

IRMI offers a host of insurance tips that individuals, corporations, and small business owners affected by this deadly fire can use. The following are some FAQs and available resources about property and auto insurance matters to consider.

Please be aware that the IRMI and Vertafore ReferenceConnect publications referenced below require a subscription fee. Contact IRMI at (800) 827–4242 for access.

If I am an IRMI subscriber, can you provide online links to relevant information regarding wildfire insurance losses?

The following are links to some discussions in Personal Risk Management and Insurance that pertain to wildfire coverage under the Insurance Services Office, Inc. (ISO), homeowners and personal auto policies, as well as articles about claims.

IRMI Online Subscribers

Vertafore ReferenceConnect Subscribers

The following are some links in Commercial Auto Insurance that pertain to physical damage coverage for commercial vehicles under the ISO business auto policy.

IRMI Online Subscribers

Vertafore ReferenceConnect Subscribers

The following are links to some discussions in Commercial Property Insurance that pertain to fire coverage in the ISO Building and Personal Property Coverage Form (CP 00 10) and claim situations.

IRMI Online Subscribers

Vertafore ReferenceConnect Subscribers

Does IRMI have discussions for subscribers related to claims and claim filing tips?

The following are links to some IRMI discussions related to claims situations.

IRMI Online Subscribers

Vertafore ReferenceConnect Subscribers

Does IRMI have free discussions related to claims and claim filing tips?

When should I contact my insurance agent or insurance company about my property damage?

If you have—or suspect that you have—property damage to your home, business, or automobile, notify your insurance agent as soon as possible with whatever details you can provide. In most cases, your agent will have a toll-free phone number for you to contact your insurance company directly. Make sure the adjuster understands that this call serves as notice of your claim. A follow-up email confirming such notice is also in order. Keep a written log of whom you talked to, their title, the date, action items, and the gist of the discussion. This written log is important if you later face problems or delays and need to substantiate your side of the story.

I can't remember what types of coverage I have, and I cannot access my insurance documents. How broad is my coverage?

Ask your insurance agent about details on your coverage, such as deductibles, additional living expenses, business interruption, and business income coverage. Your insurance policy may be destroyed, but your agent can provide this information for you, including the relevant policy numbers.

The charred remains of a house and car after a devastating forest fire

Does my personal or commercial auto policy cover wildfire losses to my vehicles?

Wildfire losses are covered under the personal auto policy or business auto policy as long as you have purchased other-than-collision (formerly called comprehensive) coverage for the vehicle. Check your declarations page or call your agent to determine if you have this coverage, which is typically subject to a deductible.

Home burned to the ground from a wildfire

Does my homeowners or business insurance policy cover wildfire losses?

Yes, these losses are covered under your property policy subject to a deductible and other policy provisions.

What about my additional living expenses, business interruption expenses, and business income losses?

The standard homeowners policy and tenants policies provide additional living expenses, which are often 20–30 percent of your dwelling limit. So, keep track of your additional expenses, such as hotel rooms and restaurant charges. For businesses suffering a wildfire loss, a commercial property policy can, and often does, provide coverage for the resulting loss of income or increased expenses. Contact your agent for details.

When should I inspect my home or business? And what resources are available for me?

Caution is urged here; you should not return to your property until municipal authorities have declared the area to be safe from heavy debris and downed power lines. You can call 3-1-1 to see if it is permissible to return to your home or your business property. See the link to the American Red Cross website that addresses this issue.

You can also reach the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) directly at (800) 621–3362. The following is a helpful FEMA website that gives details on the types of assistance available, the appeals process, and getting updates on applications. Note that the Hawaii Wildfires FEMA incident number is DR-4724-HI. For FEMA assistance, you must first obtain a FEMA registration ID for this wildfire.

Note that FEMA also offers "critical needs assistance." This aid is a one-time $500 payment per eligible household for those with unmet critical and financial needs. Details are available at the link below.

In addition, access the Maui Emergency Management Agency website for assistance. This site can assist with residential damage reporting and details on accessing your property. You can also sign up for the agency's alerts on the wildfire.

The US Small Business Administration (SBA) is responsible for providing affordable financial assistance to homeowners and renters located in a declared disaster area. Homeowners may apply for up to $200,000 in low-interest loans to repair or replace their primary residence to its predisaster condition. More information is available on the SBA website; see the link below.

What if I am dissatisfied with the claims process? What are my options?

First, make sure you are providing all the information and documents your insurance company requests in a timely manner. Also, keep a well-documented log of the entire claims filing process. Items to remember in the log are the (a) measures you have taken to assist your insurance company, (b) information you provide, (c) adjuster names and titles with whom you are interacting, and (d) dates of discussions. If you have problems or unreasonable delays, ask to speak to a supervisor or manager. Another option to consider prior to hiring an attorney is contacting the Hawaii Division of Insurance of its Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. See the link below to file a complaint with this agency.

How do I go about finding a reputable contractor to repair or rebuild my home or small business?

Consider the following tips for homeowners or small-business owners when hiring contractors.

  • Be wary of contractors who solicit business door-to-door or via cold calls. In addition, contractors should be avoided if they quote a price that will automatically go up the next day or week if the property owner does not accept it immediately.
  • Request recommendations from friends, family members, and business associates for reputable contractors who have performed excellent work for them.
  • Ask the contractor for a written estimate that includes any oral agreements they make in this process. The estimate should contain a line-by-line breakdown of costs, including materials and labor. In addition, there should not be a charge for an estimate; avoid dealing with contractors who attempt to charge for estimates.
  • Obtain at least three estimates along with the names and phone numbers of two former customers of the contractor. The property owner should contact these customers and ask about the work performed.
  • Verify that the contractor is licensed, bonded, and properly insured. Obtain certificates of insurance for workers compensation and general liability policies from the contractor.
  • Contact the Better Business Bureau (BBB) to see if complaints have been filed against the contractor. This step can be performed via the BBB's website.
  • Avoid contractors who ask for payment for the entire job before the work begins. The standard practice is to pay 33 percent of the job up front.
  • For major work, get an experienced attorney to review the construction contract.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.