Strategies for homeowners to protect their assets from the growing threat of wildfires

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

That’s how Raymond Chandler described Santa Anas in his 1938 novella “Red Wind.” And when the dry winds arrive, wildfires often arrive with them. Aptly named, they pounce like raging bulls, erratic and unpredictable, depending on wind direction and severity. It’s been happening since long before there were humans here to lament or write about them.

In the beginning, the fires were spontaneous eruptions every 30 to 130 years; they were nature’s way of preserving the valleys’ foothill greenbelts which depended upon fire to regenerate and flourish. Nowadays, wildfires happen every year with increasing frequency and severity, and 95 percent of them are caused by humans rather than nature. Experts predict that extended periods of high temperatures combined with continuing lack of rain will cancel out the seasonal aspect of wildfire danger and replace it with a year-round threat to life and what many count as their largest asset — their home. Governor Jerry Brown recently said that we have to start assuming that fire season will go right through Christmas.

Much of Arroyoland is considered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) to be in the highest category of risk for ignition. Pasadena, Duarte, Glendale, La Caňada Flintridge and Monrovia are all tagged as Very High Fire Hazard Severity (VHFS) zones. In 1993, 115 homes burned in the Eaton Canyon area of Altadena, with embers from that fire setting off flames that burned a dozen homes in Pasadena and Glendale. In 2009, the Station Fire threatened 12,000 structures, mostly in Pasadena, La Cañada Flintridge, Glendale, La Crescenta and Altadena. It came within one eighth of a mile of Jet Propulsion Labs and destroyed 89 nearby homes and 120 other structures. The cause was arson.

We were lucky to avoid damage from last December’s multiple fires, the largest ever recorded in Southern California history (although a brush fire scorched 50 acres near Mt. Wilson just last October). Such disasters were once attributed to building homes in or near wildfire-prone areas, but that explanation no longer holds true. Stephen Pyne, a wildfire historian who’s written 30 books on the subject, told the Los Angeles Times last October: “It’s no longer just the case that we’re building homes where the fires are. The fires seem to be going where the houses are.”

Financial losses are the least of our worries when we wake in the middle of the night to firefighters pounding on our door, telling us to get out quickly. In the recent fires, some families had minutes or even seconds to evacuate before their homes ignited or exit roads were blocked. We’ve all read stories of those who couldn’t even corral their pets in time to save them. The financial aftermath comes later, afflicting those who’ve lost everything and haven’t fully prepared for such eventualities.

No matter how well we try to protect our property, we’re all somewhat vulnerable. So how do you prepare for such an event, which may occur months or years from now, or may never happen? And what do you take with you if you have to leave in a hurry?


Many experts weighed in on this subject after last year’s fires around California. Their suggestions are worth noting — they’ll stand you in good stead whether you’re confronted with fire or any other kind of catastrophic event that requires you to leave your home quickly.

l. Read your home insurance policy carefully.

Don’t assume that your agent, who may be very capable, has covered you correctly.   There are hundreds of sad stories from fire victims of every economic bracket who trusted they were completely covered for rebuilding but found out otherwise — when it was too late. Many were short more than $100,000 in rebuilding costs, some in the hundreds of thousands. Some could not afford to rebuild.

Your policy should not simply cover the value of your home; it should cover all costs of rebuilding it according to current codes. “Roughly 60 percent of American homes are underinsured,” according to CoreLogic, an Irvine-based company that provides data to home insurers. Amy Bach, director at United Policyholders, a San Francisco–based nonprofit representing consumers, calls it “a huge problem.” Consumers rely on their agents, who sometimes rely on formulas that do not cover costs, she says. Sometimes even the most reliable agents simply make mistakes.

Also, if you’ve updated or added onto any part of your home (such as a kitchen or deck), report that to your insurance agent. Homeowners who fail to update after making improvements are in for problems, says Janet Ruiz of the Insurance Information Institute trade group in New York.

2. Pack an evacuation bag (sometimes called a grab-and-go kit) with all your important documents, so you can quickly take them in an emergency.

It should contain birth certificates, passports, social security cards, property titles, home insurance policy, crucial health cards and records, any critical papers. You may think some of these are easily replaceable, but in chaotic times it could take weeks or months, and you’ll need many of them immediately after any disaster. You’ll want the home insurance policy to ensure you get proper coverage if you’re filing a claim with your insurer or FEMA, especially since adjusters will be overworked and rushed.

Digitize as many important documents as you can and keep a hard drive in the kit or make sure they’re available online. If you have old, irreplaceable family photos, you might send them and any important videos to be scanned and transferred to DVDs, which can be stored in a safety deposit box.

Take a video of your home including all furniture, art and belongings. This will be essential for insurance purposes. You might even want to video the inside of clothing drawers and closets if you have lots of stuff. One survivor of the 2003 San Diego fire told the L.A. Times that in order to receive insurance money, “she had to figure out how many T-shirts were in her drawers and what canned goods were in her cupboard.” Paula Baker, whose home was destroyed, told the paper: “It was exhausting. You have to make a lot of very big decisions financially and otherwise at a time when your mind is kind of reeling.”

3. In another kit, keep a change of underwear and clothes, toiletries, a supply of medications, extra prescription glasses or contact lenses and perhaps any small irreplaceable jewelry or heirlooms you would not want to live without.

Make a list in advance of other irreplaceable items you’d take depending on the time you have to evacuate and space you have in your vehicle. If there’s little time, grab your essential kits and go. If there’s more time, grab the items you’ve prioritized.

4. Don’t forget to set aside a stash of cash.

It’s key in times of disaster, and you want to have a good amount on hand in one of your kits.

5. If you have pets, keep a bag of food, pet meds and other essentials near your document and clothing kits.

You can rotate the food and meds, so they don’t become outdated.

6. Plan on exactly what electronics you want to take — phone, laptops, tablets.

And keep extra cords and chargers in your kit.


1. Keep a detailed journal starting the day of the wildfire, flood or any disaster that hits your home.

Consumer advocates say meticulous notes will help the insurance claim process go more speedily and accurately. A diary should be updated daily with the dates, times and names of those you spoke with by phone or met with, including insurers, adjusters and contractors, plus a brief entry of what was said. Keep an envelope with all receipts that document your living expenses from the time you had to evacuate. According to Amy Bach of United Policyholders, receipts for temporary housing and other living expenses will document your additional living costs that are reimbursable.

2. Even if your house has been totally destroyed, it is essential that you take pictures of the damage.

If it’s too painful, Bach says, ask a friend or relative to do it for you. Such photos, even if they show only a remaining foundation, can help indicate the size and shape of the home and damage sustained.

Above all, be vigilant when dealing with the aftermath of a wildfire or other disaster. Remember, when you’re dealing with claims adjusters and agents who are burdened with dozens or hundreds of cases under time pressure, you need to be your own best advocate.