Coming home to a burning or already burned down building is not exactly something one would plan for, say, ahead of time. When is it time to plan for something like that? Certainly not when moving into a new home. Between signing the lease, furnishing the space, and familiarizing oneself with the best neighborhood corner stores, it just doesn’t make sense to allocate time towards disaster preparedness. Once you’re all settled in, the LAST thing running through your noodle is “Gee, I’m glad I have a comprehensive renters insurance policy that can help make me whole again should I experience unforgiving losses in a fire.” Well, let’s add another life regret to the list.
In all seriousness, being prepared for a fire is a smart (and possibly life-saving) way to take care of yourself and your belongings. Obviously, our precious hearts and minds come before our petty belongings, but for all intents and purposes, assume that you made it out alive!
Fires in the United States are more common than one would think. The National Fire Protection Association reports 90,500 Apartment structure fires in 2010. Looking at the last decade, the number of fires per year is not declining.
Fires produce water and smoke damage in addition to fire damage. My apartment, despite a lack of fire and water damage, still resembled a war zone. Depending on the type and extent of damage, some items may not be salvageable. Others may require special treatment. For example, clothing which has absorbed an abundance of smoke particles may need special treatment at a laundry facility.
Knowing exactly what type of fire damage you’re dealing with is necessary to having a successful restoration process.
How to Prepare Before
1. Make an inventory of everything that you own. This sounds tedious, but as I mentioned above, fires can cause a huge mess. A general list of your most valuable possessions (preferably stored in a couple of places) can be helpful both for recovering and replacing belongings.
2. If you are renting, get Renters Insurance. It's worth it. It's cheap. Most people spend between $15-$30 each month. Leasing agreements should be read carefully regardless, but paying particular attention to what the building manager will cover in the event of a fire, flood, earthquake, etc., will be your answer to whether Renter’s Insurance is right for you. In my experience, property management companies will be liable for structural damage, but not for damage done to tenant property, so may need to cover yourself!
What to do After
Depending on the severity of the fire (and the context in which you find yourself), the most important thing you can do mentally, is stay focused with a plan of action.
1. Find someone in charge. Depending on context, a large crowd may surround the apartment building when you arrive. It’s likely to be noisy and chaotic, so navigate to someone who knows what’s up. Ask them: when and how the the fire started, when you’ll be able to go inside, how bad overall damage is, and what the recommended course of action is for affected tenants.
2. Register with the Red Cross. I had no idea that the Red Cross would be involved with a city fire, but they were all over the scene! They can provide immediate relief and assistance for lodging, food, and clothing. I did not need temporary lodging, but I opted for assistance with food, clothing and mattress replacement. I was truly grateful for their assistance.
3. Figure out what the building will cover. Talk to someone in building management. This may be a landlord, but often times it’s not someone you've interacted with on a regular basis. Though it is not common, some properties may cover more than just structural damage. In my case, every tenant received $1000 in emergency relief, despite the fact that our leasing agreement protected the building from being liable for tenant property. Asking is key.
4. Consult a lawyer. If you’re lucky enough to know some in the appropriate legal field, it may be worthwhile to get his or her opinion. Depending on the severity of the fire, the circumstances in which the fire started, and a handful of other factors, you may be entitled to some compensation.
5. Determine whether there are (and the level of) toxins present. Entering a fire damaged building before it’s been declared safe by fire department officials is dangerous. Ask about toxins that may have emanated from the wall or tiles. Make sure to dry anything that you find soaked from water damage to prevent the growth of mold.
© 2012 Marina
Rebecca Be from Lincoln, Nebraska on September 22, 2014:
We did not have renter's insurance and were in a small town. I personally called the Red Cross once the fire was over by morning. I thought wow everyone has left. Standing there in my nightgown without even a toothbrush. The Red Cross gave us three days at a motel. They told me the volunteer fireman should have contacted them. Yes, you are right you have to stay focused. Our bodies did not burn. Thank the Lord.
Marina (author) from San Francisco, CA on April 02, 2012:
Thank you YvetteParker and emilybee! Sometimes you learn things the hard way. In this case, I'm just glad I learned!!
emilybee on March 06, 2012:
Very useful information. I agree, renters insurance is extremely worth having.
YvetteParker from AUGUSTA, GA on January 31, 2012:
Very good information. Thanks for shasring. Voted up.
Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on January 31, 2012:
Yipe! I hadn't realized that there were that many apartment fires every year. You'd think that more have sprinkler systems that could help or something...
Awesome Hub. I'm more happy than ever about having renter's insurance... and it's just... crazy to think about ALL the things that come with a fire- it's not just burnt stuff, but as you point out, smoke damage, chemical contamination, and mold!! Ugh! I'm glad that the horrific experience is BEHIND you now =____=
I also recommend visually documenting your possessions (ideally via video, photos work too) in addition to keeping a list of them (and their value) which I do in Google Docs, so it's safe in the cloud.
Marina (author) from San Francisco, CA on January 31, 2012:
Thanks! We learn from every experience, right?
Jason Menayan from San Francisco on January 31, 2012:
Great stuff...well, useful, and thanks for sharing valuable information that you got from your own (unfortunate) experience. A silver lining to a dark cloud?