When Fire Strikes: Fire Damage and Insurance

“I went from eating a grilled cheese sandwich in my home office to being homeless in about 10 minutes,” said Lyn Hillman of Austin, Texas.

The fire began in her kitchen when she neglected to turn off the stove after fixing her lunch. “I was in a hurry because of an upcoming conference call,” she said. “As I was eating, I smelled something strange. I walked through the house and saw smoke and thought, ‘Uh-oh.’ In the kitchen, the stove and cabinets were in flames reaching up to the ceiling, and I knew I just had to get out. I grabbed pets and threw them out the door.”

She got out with just her cellphone. Unfortunately, one of her dogs did not make it out of the house. And her cat ran back in to hide.

Silver Lining

The firefighters on the scene were able to resuscitate her cat using a special pet oxygen mask, but he developed complications about a week later and had to be euthanized to prevent suffering. The tragic story has a happier side: A photo of the cat’s resuscitation was utilized for a fundraising campaign that provided pet oxygen masks for every Austin fire station.

“When I heard that I thought, ‘Yay, cat!’” said Hillman.

The National Fire Protection Association (nfpa.org) reports that cooking equipment was “the leading cause of home structure fires, causing almost half (46 percent) of reported fires,” according to association records from 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

“Thank God for firefighters,” said Hillman. They found her purse on its hook near the front door, wet, and covered in soot and debris. Despite the fire damage, she was able to salvage her car keys—which worked despite a melted fob—and her wallet with her all-important insurance contact information.

Her agency sent a recovery crew, and by about 4 p.m. her house was boarded up, she had a check to cover immediate expenses, and she had arranged an appointment for her claims adjuster to meet her on-site the next day.

Check your coverage

“I keep telling my friends, ‘OK, you need to call your insurance agent and ask them what happens if you need to cover from fire damage,’” Hillman said.

“You want to make certain your policy covers replacement costs and not cash value for both the structure and the contents,” said Dave McMullen, vice president for insurance, AAA Ohio Auto Club. “Rebuilding will start with debris removal, and construction on the site might be tricky depending on neighboring structures. The cash value of your 10-year-old television will not cover the cost of a new TV.”

Hillman had considered details such as a separate rider for heirloom jewelry in addition to the replacement costs for contents and structure. She was also delighted to discover her plan included temporary dwelling coverage. “I was able to rent an apartment, and the plan included furniture rental, linens, even a corkscrew,” she said. “My policy even had coverage for the cost of permits for rebuilding.”

Thinking of these details underscores the value of a good insurance agent.

Review Your Coverage

“I’ve been advising my friends to celebrate their birthday this year by calling their agent and reviewing their coverage,” said Hillman. “I was so fortunate to have good coverage that included support for salvaging some of my personal items.”

Hillman also has advice for people who face recovery from fire damage. “First, I placed the insurance payment for the contents into a savings account until I found out what they could salvage. I was able to invest some of that money in upgrading the structure with nicer kitchen cabinets and countertops.

“If I had it to do over, I would keep better track of what the salvage company took. I recommend taking photos of items as they leave your house. I had no inventory of what they removed, and learned later that they make the choice as to whether to save something or throw it away. For example, I never got Christmas ornaments back, which disapponted me.”

Her biggest discovery? “Sunshine takes the smoke smell out of clothes and stuffed animals.”

And the most important piece of advice? Do a policy review before disaster strikes, said McMullen, who added: “We offer exclusive member discounts on all lines of insurance. As a company focused on 24-hour emergency operations, AAA’s top priority is our members and putting their needs first.”

Melissa L. Weber is a freelance writer from Columbus, Ohio.

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