Home Insurance: What You Need to Know About Fire Safety & Fire Insurance

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In 2011, fire departments in the United States responded to 370,000 fires in the home. These fires resulted in more than 2,500 civilian deaths and nearly 14,000 civilian injuries, with almost $7 billion in direct property damage and an incalculable amount of personal loss.

Home Fires and Damage Graph

Homes structures are defined as dwellings, duplexes, manufactured homes, apartments, townhouses and rowhouses.
Data via: National Fire Protection Association

The overwhelming majority of home structure fires were avoidable, and almost two-thirds of the lives lost could have been saved for less than $100. Home structure fires almost invariably start in the home, with most of the exceptions resulting from wildfires. The good news is that there are many resources — and some simple steps that can be taken — to dramatically improve fire prevention and safety.

overwhelming majority of home structure fires were avoidable, and almost two-thirds of the lives lost could have been saved for less than $100

Fire Prevention

The center of many homes is the kitchen, where we gather for meals and to chat. It’s the crossroads of the home where even the most active families are likely to run into one another grabbing a quick snack or cold drink. It is also where the largest percentage (42%) of home fires start.

The U.S. Fire Administration (which is part of FEMA) provides a list of kitchen fire prevention tips. The leading cause of kitchen fires: unattended cooking. Stove tops are a particularly dangerous area to leave unmonitored because boil overs and splatters can transform into an inferno within minutes.

The best advice: turn off the stove if you must leave the kitchen while cooking, and then turn it back on when you return. Waiting a few minutes longer for dinner is far better than watching firefighters douse your burning home from the curb.

Also be sure to keep anything flammable away from heat sources and open flames; these may include potholders, paper towels, curtains, bags and food packaging, and wooden utensils. Keep your cooking surface and oven clean; even a small buildup of grease can lead to a fire.

Waiting a few minutes longer for dinner is far better than watching firefighters douse your burning home from the curb

Pets may be our best friends, but keep them away from cooking surfaces where they can easily knock over hot pots and pans and start a fire. Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities point out that even the cook can be the source of ignition for a kitchen fire, and warn against wearing loose fitting garments, long sleeves, and even flammable bracelets while cooking.

Even when taking precautions, kitchen fires can still happen; preventing their spread can make the difference between a ruined meal and total devastation. Major insurers like State Farm and fire marshals agree that an inexpensive chemical fire extinguisher should be a mainstay of every kitchen in America. Models like the Kidde Kitchen 711A cost less than $20.

In addition to the kitchen, bedroom fires resulted in 25% of the civilian fatalities in 2011 — but were responsible for only 7% the fires. Bedroom fires are particularly lethal because they usually occur while members of the household are asleep.

Ready.gov lists smoking, space heaters and faulty electrical appliances and candles as the main causes of bedroom fires. Not all cigarette smoking fires start from smokers who fall asleep with a lit cigarette; while that number is still high, they also occur in ashtrays long after the smoker is sound asleep. Improperly extinguished cigarettes in ashtrays can smolder for long periods of time and ignite other butts or nearby paper, resulting in an inferno that quickly consumes the room.

Improperly placed or poorly maintained space heaters are responsible for numerous home bedroom fires, particularly in areas not accustomed to cold weather where occasional use places the homeowner at greater risk. Space heaters should be kept well away from walls, furniture, and sources of combustion like clothing.

Fire Safety

The Seattle Fire Department website offers a fire safety checklist that covers heating, electrical, housekeeping, kitchen risks, smoking, smoke alarms, and escape plans.

Even the most conscientious people can experience home fires, but how you react when the unexpected occurs can make the difference between life and death. A well rehearsed fire escape plan will save lives. Creating a plan can begin with a drawing; safekids.org provides a simple grid and instructions on how to create your own escape plan map to share with your children.

Even the most conscientious people can experience home fires, but how you react when the unexpected occurs can make the difference between life and death

The advocacy website proliteracy.org has a four-page, downloadable fire safety brochure that explains what to do if there is a fire in your home. The brochure provides insight into what happens when help arrives and what to do after the fire.

Different regions of the country have different fire risks and different fire seasons. During the spring, summer, and early fall months, there is a greater likelihood of home fires in particular regions like the western U.S., where seasonal wildfires pop up annually. Wildfires can result from arson or carelessness on the part of humans, or from natural causes such as lightning.

Regardless of the cause If your region is prone to wildfires, a family plan is vital to ensuring that everyone stays safe; those at home should know how to evacuate the premises, those who are away from the house should stay away, and everyone in the family should know where to meet.

City-dwellers who live in high-rise apartment buildings, beware: a fire that poses a threat to your health and safety does not need to start in your residence. A firm understanding of what to do in the event of an apartment house fire is essential to staying safe.

  • Know your exits
  • Keep your exits clear
  • Maintain a balance between security and safety
  • Know your way out
  • Understand when to stay and when to leave

Fire and Insurance

Most homeowners have insurance that covers damage from fires and many apartment dwellers do not, so a good starting point is to make sure you have coverage. Check your policy to make sure you have at least HO-2 — or ‘Broad Form coverage’, as it’s commonly known — to cover you in case of a fire or lightning strike.

Homeowners insurance forms like HO-1 are uniform across the United States and The Alabama Department of Insurance provides an brief explanation of each type of standard homeowners form. It is important to remember that while the forms are standardized exclusions may vary from one insurance company to another.

Because home is where most of us keep our important documents, you should keep at least a copy of your homeowner’s insurance information in a safe place; in the event of a fire, you will still be able to access vital information.

Before a fire happens, review your homeowners or renters policy and check for exclusions that may pose a risk to a claim you may have to file. For example, residents of wildfire prone areas should make certain that acts of God are not excluded, as that would limit your ability to collect in the event a fire caused by lightning.

Be sure you understand the responsibilities for maintaining your property in a safe, secure manner; otherwise you may be considered negligent, and your claim might be denied. Even the most comprehensive homeowners’ policies have exclusions for neglect in which case, an ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure.

Even the most comprehensive homeowners’ policies have exclusions for neglect in which case, an ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure

After a Fire

You’ve done your homework and taken all the right precautions, but your home has still been damaged or destroyed by a fire. The time has come to file a claim and you have certain obligations under your insurance contract; chief among them is to notify your agent and insurance company of the fire. You are also required to provide a detailed list of what was lost or damaged including their value.

Attorney David Grey urges homeowners who experience a house fire to notify their insurance company as quickly as possible. Also covered is what to do if you disagree with your carriers’ valuation of your losses.

The Bottom Line

The best way to deal with insurance claims after a fire is to be prepared before it happens. Understanding your rights and responsibilities as a homeowner is the first step in pre-disaster planning. The legal advice website NOLO has some great tips for getting organized after a fire.

The best way to deal with insurance claims after a fire is to be prepared before it happens. Understanding your rights and responsibilities as a homeowner is the first step in pre-disaster planning

Finally, perform an annual review of your homeowners policy and your coverage limits. As time goes on and we accumulate more belongings, our insurance coverage may not provide adequate protection. This review will ensure that, in the event of a fire, you won’t have to worry about whether or not you have enough insurance.

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