Eight Myths That Keep People from Being Wildfire-Prepared

by Linda Masterson, author of Surviving Wildfire

Myth #1: Defensible Space Doesn’t Work

Defensible space saves homes. The majority of homes lost in a surface fire are lost because they don’t have enough defensible space. People often misunderstand what defensible space is; they think they have to create a barren moonscape to be safe. See www.firewise.org and your state forest service for guidelines.

Myth #2: My Insurance Will Take Care of Everything

People think homeowners’ insurance works like life insurance, but it doesn’t and so they are unprepared to document their home and all their belongings after it is gone.

Our documentation to rebuild our home was 67 pages long. The inventory of our stuff was 2,500 items. We had to list and value everything from family heirlooms to the steaks in our freezer. I’d taken 75 photos the day of the fire because I had a “funny feeling.” They turned out to be priceless, but I wish I’d taken 200 more.

I’ve provided simple and affordable ways to get prepared in Surviving Wildfire.

Myth #3: We Have Enough Insurance

More than half of all homeowners are underinsured by at least 25%. We had good insurance, but like most people, we just didn’t have enough of it.

If your home is more than a few years old; you did some of the work yourself; you’ve remodeled, upgraded or made improvements or additions; you have custom features like stone fireplaces, wood floors, solid doors, nice fixtures—you are probably underinsured.

Insurance should be based on the true cost to rebuild a home from the ground up in today’s dollars, not market value, their mortgage, or an agent’s recommendation based simply on square footage. Our twelve-year-old log home would have cost more than twice as much to rebuild.

Myth #4: All Insurance Policies Are the Same

Homeowner insurance policies vary widely. Some pay out based on the replacement cost of your home and belongings. Some only pay actual cash value at time of loss. Some cover the costs of temporary housing if you’re evacuated or can’t live in your home; some don’t. Some allow you to buy a new home; others require you to rebuild on site.

Premiums and coverage vary widely. Shop around, compare benefits, increase your deductible and consolidate with one company to save money. Don’t scrimp on coverage.

Myth #5: All that Matters is Getting Out Alive

Sounds good on TV, but after the ashes settle and reality sinks in, you start to grasp the enormity of the job that lies ahead. People have no idea what it is like to start over from scratch.

You will feel so much better if you know you did everything you could to be as prepared as possible. Otherwise it’s hard not be angry and waste time on woulda-coulda-shoulda.

Having enough of the right kind of insurance and your papers, records and documents will save you hundreds of hours and countless heartaches.

Myth #6: We’re Prepared for an Emergency

If you are evacuated, where would you go? What if you have pets? Make a list of suitable motels and other options with phone numbers.

Do you have more than one way out? Roads in the WUI can get horribly clogged with evacuation traffic, or be blocked by the fire. Plot out at least two ways to get out.

Have you identified a place for the family to meet? You may not all be together, and cell towers are often so overloaded people can’t make calls. Pick a place and store the address and phone in each vehicle.

Does everyone have a list of responsibilities? The better you divide up jobs, the more you’ll get done.

Is Your Emergency Kit packed and ready to load? Keep as much as you can in your primary vehicle. It’s one less thing to think about. How about your Vital Information Kit? Ours was in a duffel bag in the garage.

Are all your phones and cell phones registered with reverse 911? Is your address visible from the road? Firefighters can’t help you if they can’t find you.

What would you do if you were trapped at home or in your car? Learn where and how to shelter if you have to. It could be a matter of life and death.

Myth #7: We’ll Know What to Take

You may have just minutes to evacuate. Most people freeze. One of my good friends packed her kitty litter and left her computer and cell phones behind.

You need a list of what to take and where to find it, and something to put the stuff in. Copies of all your important papers and records should be packed and ready to go during fire season.

Besides Emergency Supplies and Your Vital Information what else would you take if you only had 15 minutes to pack? Decide whatever will leave the biggest holes in your heart if they disappeared tomorrow. Make a list.

I still miss the quilts my husband’s mom made, my Dad’s Marine Corps wings, the charm bracelet I had since high school, my diaries, our wedding album and all the old photos.

Myth #8 They’ll Tell Us When to Go

Emergency Response Systems are not foolproof. If you feel threatened, don’t wait to be evacuated. Just GO.

Our fire blew up late at night. We had about 15 minutes. Our house was on fire by the time we got to the bottom of the road. We picked up our voicemail the next day and discovered our 911 call came in AFTER our home had burned to the ground. If we’d stayed, we would be dead.

By Linda Masterson, author of Surviving Wildfire, A Handbook for Homeowners

“We were better prepared than most. But we were nowhere near as well prepared as we could or should have been. I wrote Surviving Wildfire so no one else will have to learn those lessons the hard way.”