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Here are some major or minor fire recovery tips for houses and apartments.

A special thank you to the firemen, policemen, industry professionals, lawyers, insurance agents and people who gave us their time, insight and real-life advice. When you're done here, check out the sites in our Links section.

- First Steps
- When the Fire is Out
- Contacting Others
- Temporary Housing Options
- Insurance — Filing a Claim
- Salvaging Your Belongings
- Rebuilding

Click here for helpful forms related to this topic!


First Steps

  1. Be safe, be smart.
  2. Firefighters advise that you should NOT re-enter your home. Stay away from the fire and surrounding area.
  3. Call 9-1-1 if emergency officials (fire, police) to report fire and injuries if officials are not already present.
  4. Tell the 9-1-1 operator what’s happening, describe all injuries and listen to their instructions.
  5. When the authorities arrive, listen carefully to their instructions.

WHN TIP: DO NOT GO NEAR IT

AGAIN - Do NOT go near the house.

When the Fire is Out

  1. Be safe, be smart.
  2. Depending on the damage, the fire department may allow you to take your personal belongings (clothing, - jewelry, important documents).

    If you remove anything, you may have to fill out a form with the fire department listing each item. You will not be allowed to take certain items (i.e. couches, TVs, computers, appliances) as they may have caused the fire.

  3. WHN TIP: First Things

    For immediate assistance with shelter, food or other personal needs, consider contacting your local American Red Cross chapter.

  4. If your car is burned or very damaged by debris, do not start it or move it. Fire officials will tell you when you can move your car.

  5. Ask an on-site fire official for a fire department contact in case of questions after the fire. Get -

    - Fire Department contact name
    - Title
    - Phone
    - E-mail

    WHN TIP: Need the Number?

    Didn’t get fire official's name or number? Call the nonemergency fire dept. number and ask for assistance.
  6. Ask for the approximate date and time for the initial walk-through of your property. For safety purposes, you MUST be escorted; this is especially true if there is structural damage.
    • If you are insured, you should call your agent about this walk-through. Get the:

      - Walk-through date
      - Time
      - Name of fire official you’ll meet there
      - Contact number

    WHN TIP: For Renters

    Make sure you complete the walk-through before the property is turned over to the landlord; ask the fire department what your state's timeline is for turning property over to landlords (four days after the fire or six weeks?). Landlords are not required to recover your belongings.

  7. To determine the cause of the fire, you may be asked to meet with the fire chief, fire marshal and/or an arson investigator. Go here for a list of potential questions they might ask.
  8. - Fire Department Contact Name
    - Title
    - Meeting Time and Date
    - Meeting Location

    WHN TIP: If You Have Insurance

    Consider contacting your insurance agent and/or legal representative before meeting with the fire department.

  9. Watch for symptoms of stress and fatigue in your family - and yourself!
  10. WHN TIP: Smoke Inhalation

    Smoke inhalation problems can appear or last after the fire has been put out. Call your doctor if symptoms include a persistent cough, wheezing, vomiting, high temperature or breathing difficulties.

  11. Talk with your children about what has happened and how they can help during the recovery. Being involved may help them deal with the situation.
  12. Many of these things will be happening at the same time (phone calls, housing, talking with insurance agents or local support organizations) and you may feel out of control. Remember that you can set a comfortable pace for the next steps.


Contacting Others

It’s a hard time, yet remember to tell friends and relatives what has happened and that you are safe.

If you move to temporary housing, begin notifying the people on your emergency contact list. Go here for a printable Personal Contact List form and begin to alert family and friends — this is also a way to keep track of important numbers at this time.

Additionally, be sure to call the police department and tell them if you will not be in the home for an extended period of time.

NOTE: You may need to make immediate arrangements to secure your property. Ask the fire department about service companies available in your area.

Also consider alerting the following companies about the fire and your temporary change of address:

  1. any delivery services (water, newspapers)
  2. The post office (to change your mailing address)
  3. Utility companies
  4. Your bank
  5. Your insurance company
  6. Credit card companies
  7. Social Security Administration
  8. Employers
  9. Schools
  10. Neighbors (at least one of them)

Some of these organizations may have next-step instructions for you. You can contact any of these groups for information and possible assistance.

  1. The American Red Cross
  2. Civic organizations
  3. Department of Social Services
  4. Local humane society
  5. Your insurance agency
  6. Nonprofit crisis counseling centers
  7. Religious organizations
  8. Salvation Army

You can ask the American Red Cross and other volunteer organizations for help with your immediate needs, such as:

  1. Cleanup kit
  2. Clothing
  3. Counseling
  4. Eyeglasses
  5. Food
  6. Hearing aids or other prosthetic devices
  7. Medicine
  8. Other essential items
  9. Other physical aids
  10. Pet needs
  11. Temporary Housing

WHN TIP: The Red Cross

Your local American Red Cross chapter may be able to provide you with a voucher to purchase items to meet emergency needs. Call them at (866) GET-INFO [(866) 438-4636].

Temporary Housing Options

Depending upon the house damage and the type of insurance you have, you may be staying in a friend’s home, a hotel, or a shelter. Should you need temporary housing, here is a starter form for you to write down your temporary housing details. Remember to find out how long you can stay at each place.

WHN TIP: Hotels

Some hotels may offer 1-2 nights of free lodging after a fire. Call the hotels in your community and ask if they offer this service.

For temporary housing - get this info:

Date and length of stay at
American Red Cross shelter location (866) GET-INFO [(866) 438-4636]
Other local relief shelter and phone number:
- Hotel/Shelter Name
- Address
- Phone
- Room #
- E-mail

Friend or family member's house
- Address
- Phone
- E-mail

Provide appropriate people with your temporary housing and contact information and, if necessary, an alternate contact (phone and e-mail) in case you are unavailable.

Insurance — Filing a Claim

WHN TIP: Local Organizations

If you are not insured, much of the restoration and rebuilding support will come from area support groups such as the Red Cross, faith-based organizations, and family and friends. However, much of the following information will help you organize and sort your thoughts.

WHN TIP: Wildfire?

If your home was damaged by wildfire, you may be able to apply for assistance through FEMA. You do not need to have insurance to be eligible for FEMA assistance. See any of WHN's Help Center info on Hurricane, Tornado and Flood and click on “Financial Assistance” at the top of the page for more info.

WHN TIP: Track It

Start two folders or notebooks: one to track phone calls, notes and everything relating to the fire; the other is an expense book to track all expenses. No expense is too small. For both, remember to include dates and times for all entries.
  1. Phone your insurance agent or a local company representative as soon as possible even if you're far from home.

  2. Date of contact:
    - Insurance agency:
    - Agent name:
    - E-mail:
    - Phones: (office and cell)
    - Your Policy #:

    WHN TIP: Number Please

    Don't have your insurance agency's number? Call toll-free directory assistance at (800) 555-1212 for the toll-free number to your insurance company.
  3. If you don’t have your insurance policy, ask your agent to send, e-mail or bring a copy to you ASAP. Check your policy for specifics of what is covered and what is not. Always check with your agent before taking actions or accepting claim checks.

  4. Document each conversation in your notebook and include the following:

    • Date and time of phone call/meeting
    • Full name of person you spoke with
    • Items and tasks discussed
    • Next steps to be taken, deadline for completion and who is responsible
    • Ask how to proceed and what forms or documents will be needed to support your claim.
    • Ask if any information is needed from the fire department in order to process your claim. If so, what type of information?
    • Again, if you are receiving money from the insurance company, be sure you understand where it is coming from and how it affects what other settlements you expect and accept.
    • Ask how to proceed and what forms or documents will be needed to support your claim. Again, ask how accepting procedures along the way affects your ability to question anything later.
    • Ask when someone from the insurance company will arrive to assess the damage.
      Date:
      Time:
      Name of insurance representative:
      Contact number/email:

    WHN TIP: Insurance Starter ?s

    Read Questions to Ask Your Insurance Agent. It lists “starter” questions concerning claims adjusters, filing claims, statement of loss, and more.
  5. The insurance company may require a “proof of loss” form, as well as documents relating to your claim, such as medical and home repair bills, bids and receipts. Be prepared to show photos that detail every room in your house before the damage.
  6. WHN TIP: No Photos?

    Lost your photos or inventory in the fire? Contact relatives and friends - they may have photos from holidays, birthdays, dinners and other events you hosted in your home. Ask them for copies to show your agent.

  7. Again, keep records of the expenses you incur as a result of a fire. You may be reimbursed under your policy.
  8. WHN TIP: Always Ask

    Ask your insurance agent which expenditures, if any, will be deducted from your total insurance claim amount or from what you could be reimbursed for (i.e. the cost of temporary housing, transportation, and living expenses may be subtracted from the final claim amount to be received)

  9. Note on each receipt what was purchased and enter details in your expense book.
  10. If you are using a credit card, designate one card for post-event expenses, keeping all receipts with your monthly credit card statement for backup. Receipts could include:
    • Building contractors
    • Cell phone, pager or other method of communication
    • Child care or other care providers
    • Cleaning services (clothes and house)
    • Clothing, personal items (medications, toiletries)
    • Food (purchased from stores and from restaurants)
    • Hotels or other temporary living expenses
    • Mailbox rental (if mail needs to be redirected or forwarded)
    • Pet supplies, boarding costs or pet care providers (for on-site care)
    • Security services (to prevent looting)
    • Storage rental unit for possessions or vehicles
    • Temporary business relocation costs (if business was home-based) including answering service and other expenses
    • Be sure you keep copies of what you are sending to the insurance company — don’t give away your last copy!

WHN TIP: Tax-Deductible

Some fire losses are tax deductible. Keep receipts of what you spend for repairs or replacements, as well as those for living expenses, to help calculate your return. Contact your local IRS office for publication 547 (Tax Information on Disasters, Casualty Losses and Thefts). By filing Form 1045, (Application for Tentative Refund), you may be able to receive a quick refund. Check with your tax attorney, insurance agent or accountant.

WHN TIP: Wait a Minute!

You do not have to file a claim or take a claim check right away. Consider other options such as hiring an independent adjuster (read “Working with a Claims Adjuster”) who can act as an intermediary between you and the insurance company. Or seek assistance through the Red Cross or other local organizations. Remember, it's up to you to decide when or when not to file your insurance claim.

WHN TIP: Home Businesses

If you had a home-based business, you may be unable to work for an extended period of time, so financial loss may include your regular income.

WHN TIP: Insurance Account

If you are insured, think of the money as an insurance account and every time you receive money from the agency, you are depleting your account. For example, if you are insured for $100 and your living expenses are $30, you may only have $70 to restore your house and belongings. Be sure you understand the type of coverage you have, what “account” they are taking your insurance money from and how it may affect your rebuilding/restoring process.

WHN TIP: Partial ro Final Payment?

If the insurance company offers you a payment, ask if it is a partial or final payment. A final payment is their final offer and you may not be able to receive additional funds.

Salvaging Your Belongings

Here are a few things to consider as you begin the process of re-entering your house. This is NOT a comprehensive list, but it can help you get started.

  1. Be safe, be smart.
  2. After a fire, homes can be a dangerous environment because of structural damage or electrical or other hazards.
  3. You should wait until authorities have declared it is safe to return to your home. Then, work with local authorities and/or your insurance agent regarding re-entering your home.
  4. Using graph paper, sketch a site plan of your property that notes the location of gas, electricity and water meters, if you know where they are located. Take this with you when you return to your home in case you need to turn the utilities off.
  5. Mentally prepare.
    • Know that this process is emotional and very tiring.
    • If you have a hard time coping with the destruction, ask for help. Relief organizations often offer access to or info about counseling services.
  6. Re-entering your home should happen during daylight hours for maximum visibility. Artificial light may not be available due to power loss.
  7. When going through the house with an agent or fire official, find out what you need to wear and bring.
  8. Ask what you will need to note, and what you are allowed to touch (if anything), and let them know you will be recording the visit with a video recorder and/or camera (that you have borrowed from a friend in case yours was in the fire).
  9. Gather supplies to bring with you.
    • Read and print out our Records Recovery checklist for important documents and records to bring with you or locate when you return home.
    • Also, read and print out What To Take With You, our starter list of what supplies you may need. Be sure you bring a backpack to carry your supplies in or something that allows you to be hands-free. Bring garbage bags to carry what you recover or can salvage.
    • Wear thick rubber gloves, a dust mask and goggles (to protect your lungs and face), and thick-soled boots.
    • Grab your flashlight (even in daylight to help you spot items) and a wooden stick for going through the debris.
  10. Be careful walking around your property. After a fire, steps and floors may be covered with debris, including nails and broken glass.
  11. If you see downed lines or sparks, or smell burning with no visible fire, or smell the "rotten eggs" odor that is added to gas, leave immediately and notify the authorities.
  12. Look for exterior structural damage on the remains of the house.
  13. Do not go under or near any remaining walls, chimneys, roofs and trees. They may be structurally unsafe.
  14. Take pictures of EVERYTHING. The pictures will help your insurance claim process. Take pictures/video of the exterior and debris at all angles, all sides no matter what is or isn’t left. Take wide and close-up shots.
  15. When you walk through your property, if you haven't yet retrieved important documents, attempt to get:
    • Personal identification: driver's licenses, Social Security cards, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates
    • All insurance information (life, home, health, car)
    • Medical/medication information, including eyeglasses, hearing aids or other prosthetic devices
    • Valuables, such as credit cards, bank books/account numbers, photos, and jewelry
    • Any statements, including mortgage, utilities, and other monthly bills
  16. When you find your belongings:
    • Take a picture of the item before you touch it.
    • Place each item in a plastic garbage bag.
    • If large objects, like a sofa, are salvageable, cover them with a tarp.
  17. After, make a list of all the items you saw or recovered, their serial numbers and their current condition (i.e. blue couch, water damaged, 3 cushions missing). This will help your insurance claim. Again, take pictures and videotape items.
  18. WHN TIP: Hold Everything

    Do not throw away any damaged goods until after an inventory is made. All damages are taken into consideration in developing your insurance claim.

    WHN TIP: Make a Wedding Registry!

    My parents had a house fire that was such a complete loss - there was very little remaining from which to compile an inventory of contents.

    To help jog their memories, they went to Target and created a wedding registry, then they walked through the store and scanned the items they lost in the fire.

    Granted, the items they lost weren’t exactly the same, but it gave them a printed list of like items to use to create their property claim. We all got a good chuckle about my 45-year-married parents having a “new wedding date”. - Jill A., MN

  19. Once you have determined what is unsalvageable, find a place to put discards. Make it easily accessible for removal by truck or consider renting a portable trash container.
  20. Remember to take food and water breaks as you are salvaging. You don’t have to get all the salvaging done in one day. Come back the next day and continue your work.
  21. Determine what cleaning tasks you will undertake or hire professionals to handle.
    • Need to clean your clothing or salvaged items? Read Start the Cleaning Process for helpful tips to clean up soot, smoke and water.

    WHN TIP: Cleaning Up

    The insurance company may recommend that you clean your items rather than pay to replace them. Understand that the fumes and smoke smell may never be removed from some items. It is up to you to negotiate this with the insurance company.

  22. If you have lost or damaged important documents, check this out for replacement document tracking.
  23. Understand that the salvaging and cleaning process can take months.

Rebuilding

WHN TIP: Claims Adjuster

Insured? Do not have your home repaired or property replaced until both have been evaluated by a claims adjuster. A claims adjuster is appointed by your insurance company. To learn more about claims adjusters or what to ask an adjuster, read Working with a Claims and/or Public Adjuster.

In many cases, waiting a few weeks to repair your car or house will cause no further damage, and prices are sometimes more reasonable after the initial rush is over. However, if the roof of your home is leaking or your car's windows are broken, repairs should be made as quickly as possible.

  1. If you are insured, ask your insurance agent to provide an exact list of what is covered in the rebuilding process. Ask them to explain what items will not be covered by insurance.
    • Wait to hire contractors until the insurance company has assessed the damage.
    • Also, ask for a list of preferred vendors and ask if you need to hire from the insurance company's preferred list.
  2. Repair estimates
    • Typically, you will be asked to get several estimates.
    • Get an estimate for full repairs. You’re entitled to have your home restored to its full glory, not just patched up. Keep the receipts!
  3. Rebuilding
    • Read Rebuilding and Renovating to learn more.
    • Designate a relative or friend to act as the spokesperson between the insurance company, construction crew, family and others involved in the rebuilding process.
    • Also, read on Hiring a Contractor and Hiring Damage Restorers to learn more about what to look for when hiring a professional and for tips on questions to ask

Additional ...

The information provided here is not meant to be a substitute for professional legal or medical advice. These tips are from first responders, lawyers, insurance agents and people who have shared real-life advice; always check with a doctor, lawyer or appropriate professional you trust before making any legal or healthcare-related decisions.

Last Updated: 12/2008


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