Wildfires are nothing new to California residents. However, the recent wildfires have been some of the most destructive and ferocious fires that Californians have seen in decades. The combination of high temperatures, strong winds, dry forests, and lightning storms have caused these fires to become staggering in size and virtually impossible to control. As a result, they have caused massive property damage to homes and businesses up and down the state. Even properties that have not burned down completely have suffered massive damage from exposure to smoke, soot, ash, and extreme heat. In some cases, even homes that appear unscathed by a wildfire can suffer significant damage that is not visible to the naked eye. The costs associated with repairing the damage caused by a wildfire can be astronomical, so it is crucial that the homeowner file a smoke and ash claim as soon as possible. An experienced lawyer will assist that homeowner with the claims and recovery process.
What Types of Property Damage Do Smoke and Ash Cause?
Aside from the obvious damage that can be caused by a fire, smoke, ash, and heat are also extremely dangerous and destructive. The following are examples of parts of the home that can be damaged by smoke, soot, and extremely high temperatures:
- Appliances: These can become damaged beyond repair and may need to be replaced.
- Furniture: Extensive smoke and ash damage can cause irreparable damage to furniture.
- Interior: Carpets, drapes, and other porous surfaces can be ruined by smoke and ash damage. Even hard surfaces such as marble and tile can become discolored from smoke damage.
- Landscaping: In addition to destroying plants, shrubs, and trees, smoke, ash, and heat can cause the soil to be contaminated for years.
- Pools and hot tubs: Ash and soot can get into the water pumps and filters of in-ground pools, above-ground pools, or hot tubs.
- Plumbing and heating systems: Smoke and ash can cause damage to pipes, ducts, and connectors.
- Roof: Burning embers and extreme heat can cause damage to the structure of the roof.
- Structural steel and iron: The home’s foundation or retaining wall can become destabilized by extreme heat damage.
- Stucco, siding, and concrete: Extreme heat can cause stucco to crack and siding to melt. Concrete foundations can also become damaged.
- Windows: Window frames and window glass can be seriously damaged by heat. Window frames can melt or blister, and windows can warp or become discolored.
What Can I Do to Reduce the Risk of Damage to My Property?
A property owner’s insurance policy states that the homeowner is required to take reasonable care of his or her property to prevent damage. This is also known as mitigation. If a wildfire is burning nearby, homeowners are urged to take the following precautions:
- Close all windows and doors, but do not lock them.
- Make sure that all combustible materials are removed from the vicinity of the home.
- If there is outdoor furniture on a deck or patio, make sure it is covered or moved inside.
- Do not throw damaged items away.
- Turn off the air conditions system or other air circulation systems.
- Cover holes, repair broken windows, and take care of as many temporary repairs as possible.
What Steps Do I Take if My Home is Exposed to Smoke and Ash?
For most people, their home is the most significant financial investment they will make, and it is important to protect that investment, particularly if it is seriously damaged in a fire. Homeowners are urged to take the following steps if their home has been damaged by smoke or ash from a wildfire:
- Document the damage by taking pictures of the visible destruction caused by the smoke and ash. Smoke can also cause a range of health problems, so a homeowner should also seek medical attention if he or she is experiencing symptoms related to smoke inhalation.
- Cooperate with insurance adjusters. This can be frustrating and stressful, but inspectors need to examine the property in order for a homeowner to file a claim. Take detailed notes on all conversations with the adjusters and inspectors, and go through the inspection report carefully. Do not proceed until all questions and concerns have been addressed.
- Keep all bills and receipts for any temporary repairs that were made to the home.
- Keep track of living expenses.
- Do not be afraid to push back. Insurance companies may try to convince homeowners to accept a modest settlement. Demand thorough testing and inspections. Homeowners should not accept an offer unless it restores their home to the condition it was in prior to the fire.
- Get second opinions, particularly if an insurer is relying on the information from the inspection report to determine the settlement amount. Make sure that the adjuster is trained in air quality or particulate assessment.
- Hire independent experts and confirm that the insurance adjuster will cover this expense. If the insurance adjuster refuses to pay for a thorough inspection, a homeowner should consider hiring the following specialists:
– Certified industrial hygienist (CIH): This is a trained professional who will test for evidence of smoke, ash, and other contaminants that are in the air and on surfaces after a fire. Prior to hiring a CIH, a homeowner is urged to confirm that the individual has proven experience examining homes that have been damaged by wildfires. Check all references and ensure that the person is a certified CIH in good standing.
– Indoor testing conducted by a field tester: A field tester will conduct swab testing of surfaces throughout the house to check for particulates such as soot, ash, and carbon. Using a vacuum air canister, the individual will also test for chemical off-gassing, or aldehydes, which can cause serious pulmonary issues. The results of these tests are submitted to the insurer and will be used to determine a fair settlement amount.
- If a homeowner is not satisfied with the condition of an item after it has been cleaned, they may claim the replacement value, in addition to the cost of cleaning the item. In addition, if a homeowner uses a restoration company that was recommended by the insurance adjuster but the vendor caused damage to the property, a homeowner should document the work and seek compensation from the vendor, rather than using their own insurance to pay for the damage.
- Hire an experienced property damage lawyer. A homeowner is much more likely to have a successful claim if they hire a skilled property damage lawyer who will protect their rights and take the necessary steps to fight for all entitled monetary recovery.
What Documents Should I Collect Before Filing a Smoke and Ash Claim?
If a homeowner’s property was damaged by smoke and ash after a wildfire, there are a number of documents that he or she should have readily available before filing a smoke and ash claim. Images of the following documents can be stored electronically on the homeowner’s phone or computer:
- Copy of insurance policies, including homeowner’s, umbrella, auto, business, and earthquake insurance. The homeowner should include the declaration pages, endorsement, and all other related forms.
- Financial documents, including copies of the mortgage, bank statements, investments, and stocks.
- Proof of Loss statement, which provides detailed information regarding the formal claim of damages. Losses should be documented thoroughly by photographing various areas of the home, including all possessions and structures that may have been damaged. Insurers may require the homeowner to submit to a recorded Examination Under Oath (EUO) when a claim is made. If this is the case, the homeowner is urged to consult with a dedicated property damage lawyer before submitting to the EUO.
- A plan for collecting family heirlooms, photographs, jewelry, and other important, or valuable items.
Once the homeowner files a smoke and ash claim, an insurance adjuster will visit the home and perform an inspection. The adjuster will check the house for any damage that the homeowner may not have found. After the inspection, the adjuster will provide the company with the necessary information and an insurance agent will offer a settlement amount for the damages. Homeowners should avoid accepting a low settlement offer. The compensation amount may not be enough to cover the cleaning costs and other costs associated with the damage to the home.
For What Issues Should I Be Prepared When Filing a Smoke and Ash Claim?
Smoke and ash damage pose a number of issues for homeowners that they may not necessarily expect. The following are some common issues of which homeowners should be aware when filing a smoke and ash claim:
- Hidden damage: Smoke and ash can cause damage to air quality, ducts, and studs in the wall. Mold can develop after smoke exposure. This can cause a range of health issues.
- Insufficient cleaning: Insurance companies are not always thorough when cleaning a home. They may cut corners, fail to address all areas that need to be cleaned, and hire unqualified vendors.
- Unnecessary delays: Smoke and ash claims are often considered low priority, so insurance companies often delay these types of claims.
- Line of sight: If a property is damaged by a wildfire, the home must be returned to what is known as a reasonably uniform appearance, even if that involves replacing items that were not damaged by the fire. For example, even if only some of the roof tiles were damaged, all of the root tiles may need to be replaced if that is what it will take to return the home to its “reasonably uniform appearance.”
What if the Insurance Company Denies My Smoke and Ash Claim?
Insurance companies owe homeowners an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. If a home is damaged in a wildfire and the homeowner’s insurance company fails to provide a fair settlement offer that will cover the costs to repair the damage to the home, the homeowner may have grounds for a lawsuit. Insurance companies are legally required to pay a minimum amount for property damage. However, they are known for doing everything they can to avoid that payout. When an insurance company fails to meet its legal duties to the insured homeowner, a homeowner can file an insurance bad faith lawsuit. The following are examples of actions that insurance companies may take that may be interpreted as an act of bad faith:
- Failure to notify the homeowner of damage to the property after conducting a prompt inspection of the premises
- Advising the claimant that he or she should not hire a property damage lawyer
- Misrepresenting the facts of the case or the homeowner’s insurance policy provisions
- Failing to achieve a fair and equitable settlement of claims on behalf of the homeowner
- Failing to accept or deny a claim within an acceptable timeframe
How Can I Protect My Home from Wildfires?
Wildfires are an unfortunate reality in California. However, there are steps that property owners can take to protect their homes against wildfires and minimize the damage to their home and the surrounding property, including the following:
- Clear away all flammable vegetation and other combustible material around the home. Clear a space of at least 30 feet around the home.
- When landscaping the property, use fire-resistant plants. Contact a local nursery to find out which plants grow best in the region.
- Plant trees and shrubs a minimum of 10 feet apart.
- Trim trees so that branches are at least 10 feet from chimneys and roofs.
- Cover the chimney using a non-flammable screen made of one-half-inch or smaller mesh.
- Remove all dead or dying trees.
- Make sure that debris, leaves, and dead vegetation are removed from the roof and from gutters.
- Make sure that firewood is stacked a safe distance from fences, outbuilding, or anything else that could be combustible.
- Pools can be used to fight fires. Homeowners with in-ground or above-ground pools should purchase a pool pump in the event of a fire on or near the property.
- Prepare a family evacuation plan and conduct drills to ensure that everyone knows what to do in an emergency.
How Can I Avoid Being the Victim of Fraud?
Unfortunately, there are times when dishonest contractors take advantage of homeowners, such as overcharging for materials or performing unsatisfactory work. Homeowners are urged to take the following steps to prevent this from happening:
- Do not rush into signing a contract with a home repair company. Request written estimates from several companies. Compare prices and the scope of the work that will be done.
- Avoid hiring contractors who try to convince homeowners to spend a significant amount of money on temporary repairs. Keep copies of all receipts, and spend the large sums of money only on permanent repairs. These costs are reimbursed by the insurance company.
- Obtain references for all contractors that may be hired to do repairs. Make sure that the contactor has solid references and an excellent reputation.
- Do not give a contractor a deposit until a full background check has been done.
How Can a Property Damage Lawyer Help?
Most homeowner’s insurance policies cover damage caused by smoke and ash. However, an experienced property damage lawyer understands the tactics that insurance companies use to try to pay as little money as possible to claimants, including the following:
- Undervaluing the extent of the damage to the property
- Failing to conduct a thorough investigation within the appropriate timeframe
- Presenting the policyholder with a low settlement offer
- Violating the terms of the insurance policy
- Using intimidation tactics such as accusing the homeowner of fraud or misconduct
A skilled property damage lawyer will assist the client with the claims process. In addition to the insurance company’s adjuster, a property damage lawyer will ensure that the case is evaluated by skilled experts in order to guarantee that the damages are fairly evaluated. Insurance adjusters do not always acknowledge the full extent of damage that smoke and ash can cause.
Los Angeles Property Damage Lawyers at ACTS Law Assist Clients with Smoke and Ash Claims
If a fire caused smoke and ash damage to your home, do not hesitate to contact the Los Angeles property damage lawyers at ACTS Law at your earliest convenience. We have a proven track record of reaching successful settlements for clients whose homes were seriously damaged in a wildfire. We will assist you with every stage of the claims process and ensure that your legal rights are always protected. To schedule a free, confidential consultation, call us today at 833-ACTS-LAW or contact us online.
From our offices in San Diego and Los Angeles, we serve clients throughout Southern California, including Orange County and Los Angeles County, encompassing Beverly Hills, Calabasas, Malibu, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Hidden Hills, Pasadena, San Marino, Brentwood, Encino, Newport Beach, and Foresthill.