The devastating Camp Fire has been contained, but the road to recovery for those who lost homes in the fire will be long. Personal injury, property damage, emotional distress, and displacement are all common outcomes of wildfires. The safety attorneys at Reiner, Slaughter & Frankel are working with other personal injury law firms and many community partners to help families affected by the Camp Fire tragedy.
The Reiner, Slaughter & Frankel attorneys have compiled a brief review of key steps for fire victims to take and helpful hints for dealing with the insurance claims process.
Continue Working With FEMA for Immediate and Long-Term Assistance
Fire victims should continue working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for housing and other needs. For those who aren’t already in touch with FEMA, access help through the Disaster Assistance Hotline (1-800-621-3362) or website. FEMA representatives help victims understand the assistance they can receive, which may include housing, home repairs, replacing medical devices and obtaining prescription medications, applying for low-cost loans, and obtaining copies of essential documents such as IDs, house deeds, tax records, and other financial information.
Get Help Meeting Your Family’s Food, Housing, Clothing, and Transportation Needs
Several government and civic organizations are helping to meet fire victims’ materials needs such as food, shelter, clothing, children’s toys and supplies, and pet food. Much assistance was available in the weeks following the fire. However, those who lost everything will need ongoing support as weather and family needs change. Government and community organizations, as well as local news outlets, are maintaining updated lists of places people can get these things, as well as any eligibility requirements.
BUTTE 2-1-1 is a 24-hour resource line for evacuees and victims of the Camp Fire that links callers with needed services and assistance. Callers can dial 2-1-1 or text their zip code to 898211.
For those still seeking housing, or hoping to move out of temporary shelters, FEMA is the best resource. In addition, CampFireHousing.org, is a searchable website of available housing options.
Access Medical and Mental Health Care
FEMA, the Red Cross, and local providers can all assist fire victims with accessing medical care for personal injuries related to the Camp Fire and for ongoing medical needs. Local pharmacies will refill prescriptions with a driver’s license or state ID.
All victims of the Camp Fire have experienced significant trauma, which can negatively impact one’s mental health. Sometimes Treating emotional wounds is as important as treating any other personal injury or medical illness. The Disaster Distress Helpline provides immediate crisis counseling 24 hours a day in multiple languages. Call 800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
Local organizations are providing free or sliding scale mental health services, and several are offering free support groups at shelters or disaster response centers.
Replace Your Legal and Financial Documents
FEMA and several state and local organizations are helping Camp Fire victims obtain replacement documents such as IDs, driver licenses, birth certificates, house deeds, tax records, and more. The Disaster Recovery Center in Chico and the Hall of Records in Oroville (530-538-7691) are both working with fire victims to obtain free copies of vital records.
Many people don’t have insurance documents and may not even know which company insured their property. The California Department of Insurance maintains a hotline (1-800-HELP (4357)) to help people who can’t remember their insurance company.
Know Your Rights When Dealing With Insurance Companies
Natural disaster victims should immediately contact their Homeowner’s Insurance Company. Victims should also seek the advice of lawyers experienced in dealing with insurance companies on wildfire claims.
The attorneys at Reiner, Slaughter & Frankel LLP have teamed up with two other personal injury law firms to represent individuals and businesses harmed by the Camp Fire. We help victims obtain the maximum compensation to which they are entitled from insurance. We also help fire victims pursue claims not covered by insurance against those who caused the fire. The Wildfire Trial Lawyer Booklet explains the responsibilities of insurance companies and how we can help you.
California Insurance Laws Can Help Fire Victims
Because of devastating wildfires, California enacted new laws in 2018 designed to help victims. Changes include:
giving policyholders 36 months (instead of 24) following a declared disaster to collect full replacement cost to rebuild, replace at another location, or purchase an already built home at a new location.
extending living expense coverage to 36 months, subject to policy provisions.
allowing policyholders to collect the full replacement cost of their home in the event of a total loss, whether they decide to rebuild, replace at another location, or purchase an already built home at a new location.
allowing consumers 24 months from a disaster (instead of 12) to file a lawsuit related to insurance policy claims.
In addition to protections provided by these new laws, in November, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones acted to speed up the claims process for Camp Fire victims. Jones declared an emergency situation and authorized out-of-state adjusters to adjust claims in compliance with California Insurance laws and regulations.
Understand Your Homeowner’s and Renter’s Insurance Coverage
Insurance may not cover all of a policyholder’s losses caused by the Camp Fire. The insurance policy lists what it will and will not cover. For example, some policies cover all structures on a property and others might not. While standard policies cover most personal items, expensive or precious jewelry, art, instruments, and electronics may only be covered if policyholders purchased an add-on policy called a rider.
Most insured people displaced by the fire will be helped by the Additional Living Expenses (ALE) part of their policy. Most policies include this coverage, but the details of the coverage vary. In general, ALE pays for additional costs of living while policyholders are unable to live in their homes. The insured is entitled to maintain the same standard of living enjoyed before the disaster.
The ALE can be hard to understand, so policyholders should get a written copy of the coverage. They should understand coverage limits regarding the length of time, types of expenses, and the maximum amounts that can be paid out. For example, the ALE may cover the costs of boarding a pet, storing belongings, and extra mileage for work and school. If an insured has to live in a place without cooking or laundry facilities, restaurants, and laundry services are likely to be covered, but only to the extent that they exceed your typical food and laundry expenses.
Know Your Rights as a Policyholder
Consult an experienced attorney to know your rights when negotiating with the insurance company. For example, policyholders do not need to hire contractors recommended by the insurance company and they can dispute claims adjusters’ decisions about whether to salvage or replace personal items.
Policyholders can take time to understand the extent of their situation before agreeing to a settlement. Even if an insurance company says that acceptance of a check closes a claim, the insured can notify the insurance company that the claim remains open and still accept the payment.
Keep Good Records
Policyholders should keep records of every expense incurred while displaced. This includes receipts for meals, lodging, clothing, supplies, medical care, laundry, and everything else purchased after the disaster.
Good records are especially important because the ALE only covers additional expenses above what the insured paid for living expenses before the disaster. Current receipts can be contrasted with past expenses documented in bank and credit card records obtained from the insured’s bank
Maintain mileage logs along with all documents and receipts related to cleaning, clearing, and repairing homes and property. Also, keep all documents related to estimates for any kind of repairs or rebuilding. The estimates are essential if the claims adjuster disagrees with your choices.
Get Children Back in School
Paradise public and charter schools re-opened on December 3. Children displaced by the Camp Fire may enroll in any school near where they are staying, even if out of district or out of state. Federal law allows homeless children to enroll in any school district immediately, without prior school or medical records.
Victims of the Camp Fire meet the law’s definition of “homeless,” and these students don’t need any type of records to enroll in school. Parents should ask to speak to the McKinney-Vento liaison in whatever school district their children will attend, and the children should be immediately enrolled. The law also requires the school district to provide transportation for homeless children, even if the children don’t live on a regular bus route, so ask about transportation.
What to Do if You’ve Lost Your Job or Business
People who lost jobs due to the Camp Fire can immediately file for unemployment benefits with the California Employment Development Department (EDD). The usual one-week waiting period has been waived.
Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) benefits are available to people who do not qualify for regular state unemployment insurance benefits. This includes self-employed persons, business owners and workers who lost jobs or businesses or had work hours substantially reduced as a direct result of the Camp Fire. Applicants must apply for DUA benefits by December 14, 2018.
The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) offers low-interest Economic Injury Disaster Loans to small businesses and most nonprofit organizations that struggle to meet financial obligations because of the fire.
Consult An Experienced Attorney
The personal injury attorneys at Reiner, Slaughter & Frankel LLP are ready to take your call. If you are a victim of the Camp Fire, call today for a free consultation about your situation and how you can obtain the compensation to which you are entitled.