The Red Flag Warning issued earlier this week cautioning L.A. County residents about fire danger related to gusty Santa Ana Winds and warm, dry conditions is the type of warning that comes regularly lately.
It’s the type of alert that should serve as reminder to everyone to get prepared, said La Cañada Flintridge resident Ellie Wildermuth, who’s written a book on prepping for many of life’s challenges.
Those preparations go beyond hardening your home to withstand potential fire danger — they include getting affairs in order in case a fire does damage or destroy property.
“Overcoming fear of loss can be attained by having information,” said Wildermuth, whose LCF home burned down on her birthday, Oct. 5, 2009. “You go through such a fear of losing everything, if you have a document [chronicling personal inventory and important contacts], that doesn’t bother you as much.”
That starts with understanding what type of insurance you have and what it covers, said local Realtor Nancy Valentine, who serves as the official real estate sponsor of the Pasadena Bar Association.
“There are instances when fire insurance comes in and what happens is a lot of people don’t understand what insurance they really have,” said Valentine, who had a client in the process of selling a home that was destroyed by the Creek Fire late last year.
“So they get over the initial shock and then they say, ‘I’m going to call my insurance person. I’m covered,’ and that’s when they find out things have not been handled the way they should have been. And that’s the wrong time to find out.”
She said many residents in LCF and other foothill communities can get fire coverage only through the California FAIR Plan, an industry-financed organization that provides limited coverage. Some people don’t realize that, she said, or if they do, they don’t know what it means.
Paul Diaz, a local insurance agent, said the FAIR Plan covers fire, but it doesn’t cover liability or theft or water damage. Homeowners need to get additional insurance to cover those types of incidents, he said.
He also said that residents can be forced into their FAIR Plan by ZIP code even if their homes are not located near brush.
“You can be real close to Foothill Boulevard and they put you in it because smoke can travel for miles,” Diaz said. “If there’s a fire, there can be ash and smoke damage, so you’re still in a fire danger zone.”
His recommendation: “Call your agent at least once a year to go over your policy before renewal.”
Wildermuth was well-prepared when her home on Ivafern Lane burned down in 2009. She was appropriately insured and had created an inventory of her belongings because she wanted her children to have a record of what might be passed down to them.
The former La Cañada High School home economics and psychology teacher also was well equipped mentally: “I’m a lemonade glass half full type of person,” she said.
Wildermuth said she and her husband, Bob, had been evacuated on account of the Station Fire, which burned more than 160,000 acres from Aug. 26 to Oct. 26. But they’d been cleared to return and it seemed as though the fire danger had passed.
“But we had an indoor spa that we used to turn on [with a timer] from 4:30-6:30 p.m. every night,” Wildermuth said. “And one night it never did turn off. A lady coming down Crown Avenue saw smoke billowing out and she called it in.”
Wildermuth was in Redondo Beach visiting her son when she got the call. The fire destroyed almost everything she owned except for her silver and the artwork firefighters removed along with her safe, which contained her list of possessions and other important information.
It took her 45 minutes to return to LCF, where she found firefighters finishing putting out the blaze and numerous insurance adjusters were on the scene, “like sharks swimming, trying to get me to sign up with them to fight my insurance company.”
But Wildermuth wasn’t in for a fight. She was prepared.
“My experience dealing with my insurance broker was absolutely beautiful,” she said. “Now, I suppose if I didn’t have all that documentation, I may have had a tougher time. But I did, and they never questioned one thing that I wrote down.”
Wildermuth has highlighted her strategy for inventorying during preparedness presentations she’s made for local organizations, including Kiwanis and the Assistance League of Flintridge’s Cañada Auxiliary of Professionals.
She’s also produced a thorough how-to guide, available now digitally or in hard copy at the Flintridge Bookstore.
“Prepare: Life Goes On! Be Ready for Life’s Unexpected Challenges,” covers more than fire insurance, also offering a template for preparing to deal with death and diminished capacity; medical issues, other natural or nuclear disasters and maintaining a variety of pertinent home records.
“Have an inventory, know what everything is worth,” insisted Wildermuth, who has a photo of her old house afire — signed by the firefighters who put it out — hanging in her new home.
“Take photos of your belongings, and when you take photos, take some of the crown molding, take pictures of the floor, take pictures of the granite, take pictures of all the things and then there’s no argument.”
Pat Anderson, CEO of the LCF Chamber of Commerce, also recommends keeping an updated inventory of your property, both the contents inside a home and the structure of the home.
Anderson’s house on Manistee Drive was among those catastrophically damaged during the mudslides that followed the Station Fire.
She, too, had a robust list of all of her belongings, but she didn’t have as positive an experience with her recovery efforts, she said.
The damage to Anderson’s home was about $500,000, she said, but the schedule by which her bank delivered her insurance money did not keep up with the pace of the repairs.
“It’s bad enough to suffer the loss. Now you’ve got to fight for what you thought was going to be there,” she said.
Her advice, too, is to prepare. She suggested having some important conversations ahead of a disaster.
“I would say talk to your bank and say, ‘If I have a disaster, how do you people handle it?’ Do you require that the insurance company send money to you and if so, how do I get it?’” said Anderson, who was, after some public complaints in the local press, able to rebuild her home within a year with funds that came from flood and fire insurance.
“Another thing,” she added, “is how much will they pay you to live elsewhere while your house is being rebuilt?”
In addition to cooperation from her State Farm agent Barbara Marshall, Wildermuth said she had lots of help from the community as she rebuilt her home. That also went a long way.
“I learned a lot and I had a lot of help from my children and friends,” she said. “So, in the long run, it was good. I learned I have a lot of friends, a lot of very nice friends in this community.”