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Follow these fire prevention tips to avoid holiday horror

During this joyous time of year, the last thing you want to worry about is your home being damaged or destroyed by a fire. However, the probability of such a tragedy is higher than you think.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 1,170 home fires a year between 2004 and 2008 that began as a result of holiday decorations, excluding Christmas trees. These fires caused an annual average of $19.1 million in property damage. Candles represented almost half of home fires triggered by decorations.

But it's not only holiday décor that can be hazardous. As temperatures drop, you’ll want to turn the heat up, but that can be hazardous as well.

home insurance fire

These precautions can help ensure that your holidays are merry -- and that you don't have to make a frantic call to your homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance company.

Candles: Keep the number of lit candles to a minimum, and stay in the room where they, says Bob DiPoli, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Blow them out before you leave home or go to bed.

Christmas trees: These holiday staples are associated with 210 fires each year, resulting in about $13 million in property losses, according to Firesafety.gov.

To reduce the danger of fire, keep trees away from any heating sources or open flames. If your tree starts to become brittle, don’t leave it up for long, DiPoli says. Keep the tree stand filled with water at all times. If you've chosen an artificial tree, make sure it's flame retardant or flame resistant, according to Firesafety.gov.

Lights: Check your string of lights to ensure that there are no bare wires poking through or that the plastic or rubber that coats the wire isn’t brittle, DiPoli says. If your lights fit into that category, toss them out. Inside the home, make sure wiring does not run under rugs, over nails or across high-traffic areas. Also, do not overdo the extension cords, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Some people whip out these 50 feet extension cords and try to run all this power, and it’s really not designed to run that way,” DiPoli says. “If you have to use an extension cord, try to keep it short in length.”

Space heaters: Place them at least 3 feet away from flammable material such as bedspreads, draperies, upholstery and clothing, DiPoli says. Always turn them off when you leave a room or go to bed. If possible, buy devices with automatic shutoff features, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Fixed and portable home heating devices account for two of every three heating-related home fires, the National Fire Protection Association says. In 2008, these fires caused property damage totaling $1.1 billion.

DiPoli, the fire chief in Needham, Mass., says homeowners should install a smoke detector and a carbon monoxide detector on every level of a home. “In the basement, you should at least have a smoke detector if no one lives there," he says.

home insurance fireAre you properly covered?

A standard homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance policy will cover damage caused by fire and smoke, as well as damage caused by firefighters when battling a blaze. But do you have enough coverage if your home is damaged or destroyed by fire? Studies show 59 percent of today’s homes are underinsured by an average of 22 percent, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

“You should purchase enough insurance to rebuild your home in its current location and replace all of your personal possessions in the event of a total loss,” says Michael Barry, a vice president at the Insurance Information Institute.

Jill Manley of Mechanicsville, Pa., learned that having more than enough coverage on her home was well worth the price. The family's 4-year-old home caught fire just four days before Easter 2009. Their oldest daughter’s room and a spare room were destroyed, while the remainder of the home was damaged by smoke and water. The Manleys' insurance company covered the full cost to rebuild.

“We were fortunate enough in that because my husband and I had paid a little bit more on our premium, our insurance company covered an extra 25 percent (in rebuilding expenses),” Manley says. “We bought the house for $300,000, so we probably would not have been able to rebuild it for what we bought it for had we not gotten paid for extra coverage.”

home insurance fires

Be mindful that the cost of building or repairing a home has increased dramatically in recent years, so your policy should account for current construction costs.

The Manleys' policy covered what's known as replacement costs. This type of coverage pays the full tab to repair or replace the damaged property with materials of similar kind and quality -- without deducting for depreciation.

After the fire in 2009, "our insurance company had people come to take an inventory of every single thing that was not salvageable,” Manley says. “For example, they gave us money to buy new clothes.”

The dollar amount of an insurance claim following a home fire will reflect the costs of rebuilding your home and replacing damaged or destroyed personal property. Nancy Smeltzer, a spokeswoman for Nationwide Insurance, says most policies cover extra expenses incurred after a fire, such as temporary lodging.

In the whirlwind following a fire at your home, remember to hang on to the fire department's report -- you'll need it for your insurance claim, even if it was a small kitchen fire that was extinguished quickly. A small fire like that can cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage, according to Paul Berger, an insurance attorney in Coral Springs, Fla.

“Claims without fire department reports are viewed as fraud claims,” Berger says.

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