Experiencing a house fire is stressful and traumatic. And when it’s time to go back to assess the damage, it can feel totally overwhelming. So where do you begin?
Start making calls
After a fire, you’ll need to make plenty of phone calls, even before returning home. Here are 7 important ones.
1. Family and friends: Your family and friends will want to know you’re all right. Whether it’s sending a group email or text message, or making one call and asking someone to help inform the others, this is a top priority after being affected by such a devastating event.
2. Fire department: Before heading back home, be sure you have the all-clear from the fire department. They’ll let you know when it’s safe to go near the property. You can also check out the National Interagency Fire Center for info on wildfires around the United States. Or you can refer to your state’s emergency services websites for more regional information. In California, for example, CalFire offers preparedness information and updated, ongoing messages about fire locations.
3. Post office: Stop your mail delivery and switch to a post office box until you get the green light to return home permanently. Begin using your P.O. Box for everything going forward.
4. Insurance company: Your insurer can help guide you through this difficult situation and assist you with your homeowners (or auto) policy. They might also possibly trigger “Loss of Use,” which can help qualified policyholders get some immediate access to funds for essentials like clothes, toothbrushes, food, etc. Speaking with a representative can also begin the process for the claim on your home. Or you can contact your state’s Department of Insurance for assistance with filing claims and to get state information.
5. Utilities (electric, gas, TV, water, garbage, landline phone): Either freeze or cancel your service. And no matter what, DO NOT turn your gas back on yourself. Contact a qualified professional to perform a safety inspection before the gas or electric service is restored and any gas appliance pilot lights are re-lit.
6. Landlord or mortgage lender: Keeping your landlord or lender in the loop is crucial as there may be changes or pauses in your rent or mortgage payments.
7. Bank/credit card company: You may need to cancel or replace your credit and/or debit cards. Plus, it’s important to inform your bank that you may be making multiple withdrawals or credit card payments — you don’t want any accounts frozen while trying to take care of everything.
Register at shelters and disaster relief agencies
The next step is to make sure you’re registered with any local shelters as well as larger organizations like the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Registering is a key priority after a disaster, since most of the incoming aid will use these lists as a point of contact.
Inspect your property
Once you’ve gotten approval to return home, do so safely. While you’re on your way, keep an eye out for trees and power lines that could’ve been weakened or damaged by fire or water. Avoid debris along the road to your home and your driveway. And remember that things could still be hot, so approach your property with caution.
Contact restoration companies
Now’s a critical time to call in the professionals. Damage to your house might also be from the efforts of firefighting — if they needed to cut holes in your walls to access the flames, for example, or if there’s water damage from the firehoses. Research companies that can help repair this kind of flame, heat, smoke, and water damage (you can search for a reputable one through the Better Business Bureau).
Create your personal property list
Begin working on your personal property list — not a fun task by any means, but necessary for insurance purposes. If you didn’t already have a home inventory created, write down items the moment you remember them.
Secure safe housing
If your home is unlivable, make sure you have a safe place to stay. Maybe you have the option to stay in a guest house, an in-law unit, or on the property of friends or family. But if not, begin searching for a longer-term rental. Restoration and rebuilding can take some time. Include your insurance company in your search so they can stay acquainted with the situation (and let you know if your policy will help pay for your rental). If your house is unlivable yet still standing, contact your local police department to inform them that it’ll be vacant so they can board up windows and doors to protect it.
This is the time to call on your village: friends, family, local community organizations rallying around those affected, and even larger national organizations like The Salvation Army. Let others take care of you or bring you meals. They want to help! Network. You can learn so much from people around you — whether it’s online via social media or in person at the grocery store. Sharing information will be crucial during this rebuilding period.