Wildfire insurance: what you need to know

Your guide to the different kinds of wildfire insurance and homeowners insurance implications for residents in the most high-risk areas.

Although wildfires occur mostly in undeveloped areas and have little impact on human communities [44] , an estimated 4.5 million homes in 13 Western states are considered to be at either high or extreme risk of wildfire damage [45] , according to Verisk Wildfire Risk Analytics. 

As fire season continues to expand and the fires themselves burn bigger and more frequently, several major homeowners insurance companies in California are no longer insuring homes located in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) — or the outer suburbs of major metropolitan areas — where the risk of wildfire loss is the greatest. When property owners in the WUI are able to find homeowners insurance, they may have trouble finding affordable or sufficient coverage.

If your house is in a fire-prone area and you’re struggling to find adequate or affordable wildfire insurance for your home and belongings, you have a couple options for getting covered. In this guide, we’ll walk you through what those options are and how to better protect your property and other assets against wildfire devastation.

Key Takeaways

  • There are many different kinds of property insurance that cover damage caused by wildfires, including home insurance, auto insurance, and renters insurance

  • Although homeowners insurance covers damage caused by wildfires, many major insurance providers are no longer insuring homes in high-risk areas of California

  • If you’re having difficulty finding home insurance on the open market, look into coverage with your state’s FAIR Plan or excess & surplus (E&S) insurance

What is wildfire insurance?

There isn’t a singular insurance product called “wildfire insurance”, but there are several different kinds of insurance policies that will protect your home, car, belongings, and assets against wildfire damage. 

  • Home insurance - Covers damage to your home and belongings if caused by fire or another covered peril in your policy. Home insurance may also cover temporary lodging while your home is being repaired after a fire

  • Auto insurance - The comprehensive coverage portion of your auto insurance policy covers damage to your car that isn’t a collision, including fire damage

  • Condo insurance - Covers fire damage to the structure of your condo unit and personal property inside the condo. Condo insurance may also pay out for additional living expenses while your condo is being repaired or rebuilt after a fire

  • Renters insurance - Covers fire and smoke damage to tenants’ personal belongings. May also cover temporary housing and meals while the rental unit is being repaired 

How much is wildfire insurance?

Residents in California pay an average of $1,073 a year for homeowners insurance, but your premiums could be significantly higher if your home is in the wildland-urban interface. Many residents in high wildfire risk areas purchase homeowners insurance via a FAIR (Fair Access to Insurance Requirements) Plan when standard coverage isn’t available. These policies tend to be significantly pricier than regular homeowners insurance.

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Does homeowners insurance cover wildfire damage?

A standard homeowners insurance policy covers fire and smoke damage, including damage caused by wildfires. That means if a wildfire damages or destroys your house and personal property, homeowners insurance may help cover the cost of a home rebuild or repairs, new belongings, and temporary housing if the fire makes your home uninhabitable. 

Here’s a rundown of all the ways homeowners insurance protects you against wildfire devastation.

1. The structure of your home and additional structures on your property

Homeowners insurance covers the structure of your home, any attached structures like a patio or garage, and any separate structures on your property, like a shed, fence, or detached garage. Your home should be insured at its replacement cost, which is the amount it would cost to rebuild your entire home at the current prices of construction and labor. 

The amount of coverage for your home is represented by the dwelling coverage limit on your policy declarations page. The coverage limit for other structures on your property is automatically 10% of your dwelling coverage limit, but you can elect for more coverage if the need is there. 

2. Your personal belongings

A standard policy also covers your belongings against fire damage, including furniture, electronics, and kitchen appliances. If trees or other plant life on your property are destroyed by fire, homeowners insurance may also reimburse you for those losses. 

Your personal property coverage limit is typically 50–70% of your policy’s dwelling coverage limit.

3. Temporary housing while your home is being repaired

In the event a wildfire damages your house and forces you to flee the area, the loss of use section of your policy can help cover the costs of temporary housing, restaurant meals, and other reasonable expenses while your home is being repaired or rebuilt. 

Also known as additional living expenses (ALE), this coverage is typically 20% of your policy’s dwelling coverage limit. If you live in a wildfire-prone area, you may want to consider higher ALE limits. 

How to get wildfire insurance in fire-prone areas

If you live in an area that’s considered to be at high risk of wildfires, you may have a difficult time finding affordable homeowners insurance. In some cases, you may not be able to find coverage for your home at all. If you recently received a nonrenewal notice from your insurance company and find yourself short on insurance options, consider the following:

Consider a FAIR Plan 

Since many major home insurance providers in California are no longer insuring homes located in the wildland-urban interface, Golden State residents have had to consider alternatives to standard coverage. One such alternative is the CA FAIR Plan, a state-administered insurance pool that provides coverage to residents who can’t find coverage on the private market. To be eligible for a FAIR Plan, you need to have been declined coverage on the private market at least three times. 

Keep in mind that FAIR Plans are typically expensive and coverage is more limited than insurance on the open market. Although you can usually add coverage to these policies, even the most enhanced FAIR Plan won’t cover water damage, theft, vandalism, and liability expenses. One popular option among California residents is to purchase fire insurance via a FAIR Plan and pair it with a difference in conditions (DIC) policy that can fill in the coverage gaps left by the main policy. The California Department of Insurance has a list of insurers that sell DIC policies here.

Excess and surplus (E&S) coverage

Your other option is to purchase fire insurance or home insurance through an E&S insurer that specializes in unique risks and high-risk properties. Excess and surplus insurers aren’t required to abide by the same regulations and underwriting criteria as standard “admitted” insurers. 

While the underwriting flexibility allows E&S insurers to take on more risk, the lack of regulation also allows these companies to price policies however they see fit. As a result, E&S insurance can be prohibitively expensive.

Wildfire insurance claim tips

In the event of a wildfire damage to your home and belongings, you’ll want to keep the following tips in mind when you file an insurance claim.

  • Contact your insurance company and file a claim - Once it’s been confirmed that your property was damaged by a wildfire, contact your insurer immediately. Once your claim has been filed, an insurance adjuster will stop by to assess the damage. You’ll need to provide your insurer with a “proof of loss form” with a description, date of purchase, and replacement value of each damaged item. 

  • Document everything - After the wildfire is clear of the area and it is safe to enter the premises, make sure to document the damage to your home and belongings with photos and videos before attempting to clean up or make temporary repairs.

  • Keep track of additional living expenses - If you had to flee your home due to extensive structural damage, be sure to hold onto hotel and restaurant receipts. The loss of use coverage in your home or renters insurance policies will likely reimburse you for these expenses.

  • Understand how long you have to file a claim - Most insurers will only accept claims that have been filed within a specified period of time of the loss — usually 60 days.

If your claim was denied or you received a smaller payout than what you thought was deserved, you can file an appeal with your insurance company.