North Coast insurance agents on protecting home, finances from fire

Though summer is drawing to a close, California faces at least two more months of fire season. Experts have tips on how you can protect your home - and your finances - from a blaze.|

This story was orginally published Aug. 16, 2015

Burton Jernigan wants to be called.

It doesn't matter that the State Farm agent in Lower Lake, a 35-year veteran of the industry, has been in the thick of coordinating claims from customers who have suffered damage from the fires ravaging Lake County.

Jernigan has fielded a constant stream of phone calls, emails and texts over the last two weeks. He has been out to structures that have been damaged. He has visited emergency centers where people have sought shelter from mandatory evacuations. And he has counseled them at his office along Highway 53.

But Jernigan still wants to be called by his clients — especially those who have not suffered any damage. The wildfires should serve notice to residents across the North Coast to review their homeowners policy and determine if their coverage is sufficient.

'Over time, people start getting involved in their routines and their lives and they gradually move on,' Jernigan said. 'We need to remember that preparedness is the key to survival and recovery.'

Though summer is drawing to a close, California faces at least two more months of fire season. The most costliest fires have come in the month of October, according to Property Claims Services, an analytics business, such as the 1991 Oakland fire that caused a record $1.7 billion of estimated insured loss at the time.

Jernigan declined to reveal the number of claims he has processed from the pair of fires this month in Lake County, though he added 'for the size of the fire, the numbers have been miraculously low.'

Cal Fire reported on Aug. 19 that the Rocky fire was responsible for the destruction of 43 residences and 53 outbuildings, such as sheds and garages, while damaging eight structures.

Insurance experts are urging local residents to continue to be on guard this fire season. California has the largest number of households exposed to extreme risk of wildfire and has suffered the most costly damage, according to Verisk Insurance Solutions. Fifteen percent of the state's households are located in areas of extreme risk.

Given those dangers, experts have several tips for homeowners and renters to keep in mind this fire season.

Before any blaze

Call up your insurance agent and get a review of your current policy, especially if it has not been done in at least three years. The good news: Unlike flood or earthquake coverage, which require separate policies, fire damage is covered under a typical homeowner policy. The problem that many homeowners may encounter is that they have underestimated the full cost of rebuilding when selecting their coverage limits.

'People confuse market value and replacement costs,' Jernigan said. He recommends talking with your contractor or insurance agent to get a better sense of how much money it will take to rebuild.

Janet Ruiz, the California representative for the Insurance information Institute, noted that homeowners may have remodeled a kitchen, put in a new deck or made other home improvements, but have kept their coverage at the same level.

'I think a lot of people believe that (the policy's) going to cost a lot more, and usually that's not the case,' Ruiz said.

They also should be aware that fire damage to cars and trucks must be under separate automobile comprehensive coverage, not the homeowners' policy, Ruiz said. Those who have multiple vehicles or cars in storage that may not be easily moved during a fire evacuation may want to examine their coverage.

Policyholders also should document their personal property to ensure they accurately account for their possessions, which will make it much easier to process a future claim. In this digital age, all one needs is to film inside their home with a smartphone, opening up all closets and drawers, and store the videos or photos in a cloud service so they can be accessed even if the smartphone is lost or damaged.

Homeowners also would be well served by conducting maintenance around their property to reduce the risk that their home may catch fire during a blaze. For example, the California Fire Safe Council has a brochure that can be accessed online that gives examples of how to better fireproof a residence, from everything on where to store a propane tank to the thinning and pruning of trees and other vegetation.

Jernigan said he is big believer in preventative maintenance. He recounts the story of a homeowner who assiduously cleared brush and weeds several hundred feet from his home and created, in effect, a containment line around the property. The fire was stopped in its tracks.

'I remember after the fire, the fire chief said there is no way that home is going to be standing,' Jernigan recalled. 'It became a classic case of what to do.'

As the blaze approaches

Residents should be prepared to leave at a moment's notice if a mandatory evacuation is called. About 5,000 residents of Lower Lake and the east side of Clearlake were under an advisory evacuation warning at the height of the Rocky fire.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs has established the Ready, Set, Go! program that provides valuable resources for what should be done right up to the moment that an evacuation becomes mandatory.

One key message that experts stress: Residents should well in advance make a list of necessary items that can't be left behind, as opposed to scrambling to pull items together right before an evacuation order. This list includes such things as medications, important personal documents and photos, pet supplies, change of clothing, toiletries and sentimental items.

Ruiz said she realized this preparation firsthand as she has a house in the Hidden Valley Lake area of Lake County, which was threatened by flames during this month's wildland blazes. Her husband owns several guitars and wanted to make sure his most valued ones were packed in case they were forced to evacuate.

'The insurance will replace the clothing and furniture, all those things,' she said. 'It's really things that aren't going to be easily replaced by insurance.'

Make sure you keep all receipts if you are forced to leave in a mandatory evacuation, experts said. Homeowner policies may reimburse some expenses, such as meals and hotel rooms.

Renters also may want to consider getting renter's insurance, which will cover some living expenses, such as hotels, before you can return to your apartment. The institute notes most policies will reimburse the difference between the additional living expenses and your normal living expenses, but still may set limits on the total amount paid.

Renters policies can be obtained for as little as $200 to $300 annually, Ruiz said, which could provide safeguards in an especially tight North Bay rental market.

The fire's aftermath

Watch out for contractors or adjusters who may want to scam someone whose home has been damaged or destroyed. Public adjusters, who are hired by policyholders to help them with a claim, are prohibited from soliciting contracts from homeowners for seven days following a disaster, said Madison Voss, spokeswoman for the California Department of Insurance.

The department had a response team out last week in Lake County alerting residents to be on the lookout for potential scammers. 'During the times when people are trying to recover from a disaster, sometimes we don't see the best of people,' Voss said.

The department recommends that homeowners make sure their contractor is currently licensed, which can be checked at the state Department of Consumer Affairs website. Before any work takes place, homeowners should also check whether the contractor has worker's compensation insurance. Homeowners should ask the contractor to bring proof of such insurance on the first day and verify the policy before work begins, Voss said. If the contractor gets injured on the job, the homeowner could be personally liable.

'(The paper) does not guarantee they are actively carrying compensation insurance,' Voss said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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