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Insurance Matters

Insurance Matters: Fire insurance claims: 7 steps after a disaster

From the Bruce Sackrison's Insurance Matters series
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Bruce Sackrison

Bruce Sackrison is a Napa Valley Register columnist who will write about property and casualty insurance matters.

This is a difficult column for me to write. There are no adequate words to describe the sadness we all share for friends and neighbors affected by the fires.

The Atlas Fire and other fires surrounding us in Napa, as well as fires in neighboring counties, may end up being the worst in memory. We don’t know, and as I write this column, the smoke is still rising.

Please share these seven steps with anyone who has been affected.

And consider saving this article link and referring to it in case you ever find yourself in the same tragic situation.

Step 1: Call your insurance agent

If you have a local agent, call him or her.

If you don’t have a local agent, call your insurance company. But still consider calling a local agent referred to you by a friend.

Why is this the first step?

A local insurance agent will know what special claims procedures may be in place during this large-scale disaster. They can also provide needed emotional support to navigate the difficult process of getting back to financial normal.

Step 2: File your claim right away

When disasters on a large scale happen, the claims system gets overwhelmed.

Even though it’s “all hands-on deck” at the insurance company, everything will take longer. Sure, they will add staff and eventually everyone will receive excellent care. But make sure you are standing in line early.

Step 3: Document everything

Take good notes and lots of pictures. Dates and times matter too. If you have inventory lists of all your belongings, property improvements and valuations… great. But most folks don’t.

So start writing things down now. Don’t wait.

Step 4: Secure your property

Do this only after it is completely safe to return, and only if you are capable of doing so.

Preventing further damage is one of your responsibilities under most policies. But you may need help to do this… don’t be afraid to ask for it.

That’s what neighbors and friends are for.

Step 5: Keep making your payments

Don’t forget to pay your mortgage and your insurance premiums, even if your property is a complete loss. This is one of the most common mistakes folks make after losing everything in a fire.

Step 6: Keep track of additional living expenses

If you’ve taken refuge in a hotel or motel, keep receipts. All of them. Also keep receipts for meals, personal care items, and clothing.

Most policies provide for Additional Living Expenses (ALE) and many policies provide this benefit for a long period of time if necessary. So keep a record of everything.

Step 7: Don’t settle early

In the case of natural disasters, some insurance companies disburse checks quickly to help with immediate needs.

That’s great if they do that. But watch for language accompanying each check, and make sure you are not unknowingly closing the claim by accepting the check.

You don’t have to “settle” right away.

My advice:

If you are reeling from this tragedy, you’ll need help to navigate the insurance claims process.

Don’t go it alone. There is a community ready to help.

Bruce Sackrison is an insurance property and casualty broker affiliated with Professional Insurance Associates. He is at 707-931-0186 or

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