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Wildfires may be a bigger risk to your home than you think

From Alaska to North Carolina, the risk of your home being damaged or destroyed in a wildfire is real.

Contrary to popular belief, wildfires aren’t just a problem for Californians and other Westerners. Fortunately, there are steps property owners can take to reduce their risk of damage and protect themselves if disaster does occur.

“Nearly every community in the U.S. has some level of risk from brush, grass or forest fires,” says Michele Steinberg, program manager for the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise Communities, an initiative that works to protect residential property from wildfires.

When it comes to insurance, “both the homeowner’s and auto policy cover losses from fire,” says Lynne McChristian, a spokeswoman for the Florida office of the Insurance Information Institute. That includes losses related to water damage resulting from fighting the fire, as well as damage caused by the fire itself.

home insurance wildfire

Homeowners also may be eligible for federal money if a disaster is declared in a wildfire-ravaged area, but “something that many people do not understand is the federal disaster relief often comes in the form of a loan, which must be paid back,” McChristian says.

Such damage can be costly. According to a company called ISO, which provides information about property and casualty insurance risk, wildfire costs can be separated into two categories – suppression costs, which are associated with controlling the fire, and damage costs, which are associated with structural damage. One wildfire can easily cause millions of dollars in suppression costs and several thousands of dollars in structural damage, ISO says.

Fiery forecast

This spring and early summer, drought conditions are expected to increase the risk of wildfires in the Southwest, South and Midwest, as well as the mid-Atlantic, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the country’s support center for fighting wildfires. Florida, New Mexico and Arizona also are expected to have above-normal wildfire potential through July 2011.

The 2010 wildfire season was less damaging than normal, with nearly 72,000 wildfires reported across the United States, compared with nearly 79,000 the year before. About 3.4 million acres burned in 2010 -- about half of the 10-year average. Alaska sustained the most burned acres: 1.1 million. Other states that had a lot of wildfire damage in 2010 include Arizona, Colorado and Idaho.

The Insurance Information Institute points out that while California often attracts the headlines when it comes to wildfires, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Missouri and Florida all have experienced thousands of wildfires in recent years.

Protecting your home

No matter where you live, "the most vulnerable thing on your home is the roof,” says Anne Cope, research director for the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, which works to prevent property loss from natural disasters. A roofing professional can tell you whether your roof is made with fire-resistant materials, such as concrete and steel. Homeowners also can make sure debris is kept off the roof, as well as out of the gutters.

Other steps that homeowners can take include:

• Create a non-combustible zone 30 feet around your house, which will be free of flammable items such as fire-burning logs, fuel and certain types of plants.

• Keep lawns watered and maintained since “dry grass and shrubs are fuel for wildfire,” Steinberg says.

• Makes sure trees are pruned so the lowest branches are higher than 6 feet.

• Check with a state forestry agency or county extension office to find out about native and less-flammable plants that could reduce fire risks around your home, Steinberg says.

Since wildfires command so much attention from firefighters, there may not be a quick response to a small blaze at your house. “Your home has to be ready to stand on its own if a wildfire is approaching,” Cope says. “You need to prepare your home so it’s very hard for an ember to start a fire.”

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