Does renters insurance cover fire, including wildfires?
Though wildfires can cause devastation on a scale much larger than your average house fire, to your insurance company, fire is fire. So if you’re unlucky enough to be in the path of an oncoming blaze, you can be reasonably sure that the answer to the question, “Does renters insurance cover wildfires?” will be yes.
What damage is covered in the event of a wildfire?
What will renters insurance cover when it comes to fire damage? Almost everything. Does renters insurance cover fire damage? Yes, which means your renters insurance plan will cover direct damage from the flames, but it should also cover smoke damage, soot damage, and damage from water used in firefighting efforts, even if your home wasn’t actually burned.
How will your insurer determine the extent of the damage?
If there is proof that your home was completely destroyed in a wildfire, either through photos you provide, or reports issued by the fire department, it will be relatively easy for your insurer to assess the extent of the damage. In other cases—if only part of your home burned before the fire was put out, or if your home was mainly impacted by smoke, soot, and water—your insurance provider will likely have an adjuster inspect the premises.
The adjuster will investigate the amount of damage, determine its source, and help the insurance company determine what sort of payment you’ll receive. Adjusters can sometimes find and report damages you might not think to claim. Often, people don’t realize the extent of smoke damage in unburned areas of their home, or don’t think to ask their insurance company to clean or replace items damaged by soot, which is toxic.
What if your home is outside the fire zone, but there’s still smoke damage?
You may be able to claim smoke damage if your home is outside the zone of the wildfire, though it depends on the size of the fire, the strength of the wind, and a few other factors. In general, if you keep your doors and windows shut while there is wildfire activity, your home should be fine, but if you’re in doubt, you can contact your insurer to send an independent adjuster out for an inspection.
Will your insurance pay for repairs, or for replacements?
Your insurance company will decide whether to pay to repair an item, clean it, or replace it. Often, that decision will be based on whether an inspector, repair person, or cleaning service says the item can be restored, as well as the estimated cost of the work. Be sure to obtain paper or digital copies of all quotes and estimates—you’ll want them for your records, and will need to submit them to your insurer as part of your claim.
Your insurance company may also take the estimated cost of the item itself into account when deciding on a payout. Let’s say a cleaning service says that there isn’t much smoke damage to your $1,000 rug and it can be cleaned for $200. In that case, your insurer is likely to pay out $200 in damages for the rug. But if the service says that cleaning will cost $800, the answer isn’t as clear-cut—when the cost of cleaning or repair is almost as much as the cost of replacing an item, it’s possible your insurer will decide to kick in a bit extra for the replacement instead.
Note that the insurance company’s decision only impacts the amount of your payout—you can still choose to do what you want with an item. Let’s go back to that same rug example. If your cleaning service says it’ll cost $200 to clean the rug and your insurance company issues a $200 payout, you can still throw the rug away and replace it. You’ll just have only $200 from insurance to put toward the cost of your new rug.
What’s “loss of use” renters insurance coverage, and when does it apply?
In addition to coverage for damage to your belongings, your basic renters insurance policy also includes loss of use renters insurance coverage, which means that your insurance company can help you out if a covered event, like a fire, renders your house unlivable.
In those cases, your insurer will help pay for temporary accommodations, and may even pay for certain reasonable additional living expenses while you’re displaced, such as increased costs associated with a longer commute. In the event of a wildfire, loss of use may kick in even if your home hasn’t been burned. If damage to a neighboring structure makes it unsafe to return home, or if the infrastructure of your neighborhood suffered such extensive damage that the area itself is unlivable, your insurer may still be able to help.
Does loss of use apply if you leave home before the fire reaches you?
As wildfires spread toward inhabited areas, civil authorities will often release evacuation statements. Sometimes, they declare an area under voluntary evacuation, other times, they issue a mandatory evacuation order. For the average person, there may not be much difference between the two—there’s a wildfire threatening your neighborhood, so the safest thing to do is to get out while you can. But to your insurance company, the distinction between a voluntary and a mandatory evacuation is key.
In the event of a mandatory evacuation, your loss of use coverage will kick in. That means your insurance company will help pay for temporary accommodations and cover some reasonable additional living expenses, just as they would if your home had already been damaged and you couldn’t move back in.
But if your area is under a voluntary evacuation, you’re responsible for any costs associated with staying elsewhere. Though leaving home until the danger passes may still be the right thing to do, renters insurance only covers mandatory evacuations, not voluntary ones. If you live in a wildfire-prone area, the most important thing to do is to stay safe. Make sure you take the necessary safety precautions before, during, and after the fire.