Recovery after losing a home in a wildfire or residential fire is a devastating and stressful experience. A family must not only navigate the intense feelings of grief and loss from the destruction of their home and personal belongings, but the oftentimes complex and lengthy process of rebuilding. It’s a process with many moving parts and players and can be daunting, overwhelming, and emotionally intensive. Knowing where and how to begin is the first step toward regaining a sense of normalcy, control, and peace of mind.

That’s why, with years of experience working with families to rebuild homes after fire damage or devastation, our Stillwater Dwellings leadership team has put together a new blog series walking homeowners through the entire process.

“We know the complexities of each step and can help them through this process to alleviate the stress and anguish during this incredibly challenging time,” said Stillwater Dwellings Co-CEO and Founder John Morgan. “We’re not only helping them rebuild their homes, but more importantly, their lives.”

Having helped families rebuild homes after experiencing home loss, our team has a deep understanding of what it takes to navigate the various stages of recovery and construction, from working with insurance carriers and local municipalities to debris clean-up and incorporating a universal fire-resistant approach to the new construction.

“Because we’ve been doing this for so long, our knowledge, expertise, and positive relationships with cities, agencies, and service providers allow us to better streamline the process and deliver transparency and predictability to fire victims,” said Stillwater Dwellings Co-CEO and Founder Kaveh Khatibloo.

About Our Home Rebuilding Guide

Today is the first post in a series that focuses on the process of rebuilding a home after a fire. Over the next few weeks, we’ll share step-by-step recommendations and best practices, including what to do first, who to call, and an outline of the sequence of action items to make the project move along and be less overwhelming.

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1. Contact Your Insurance Carrier

As soon as possible, the very first thing you must do is contact your insurance carrier and file a claim. Nothing else can move forward until you have completed this very important step. Hopefully you have retained your policy information prior to home evacuation, however it’s not critical. A best practice is to keep insurance policy information safely secured in a cloud storage account like Google Cloud or Dropbox for easy and anytime access.

Your insurance carrier will assign a claim number and adjuster, who will usually serve as your primary point of contact with the company. They will review with you the scope of your coverage and benefit amounts included in your policy.

At this time, it is a good idea to start researching home building companies to determine the best fit for your design requirements and preferences. Stillwater Dwellings can assist homeowners with understanding their policy benefits and how to optimize them in their budgets for their new home build. We’ll be discussing how to find the best builder for your home in more detail in an upcoming post.

2. Site Clean Up

The first big decision is to determine who will perform site recovery and clean-up.

Please do not, under any circumstances, travel to your home site until you are advised it is safe to do so. There are potential risks returning to the home and sifting through debris. Homes damaged and destroyed by flames, heat, water, and smoke leave behind materials and fumes that can be hazardous to health and safety. If there are personal items you would like to attempt to retrieve, you may be able to work with your insurance adjuster to coordinate the best and safest way to do so.

There are two ways to go about debris removal and site clean-up. The first option is to utilize state agencies and programs to manage the project at no cost to you. The specific agencies and programs involved vary from state to state; for example, in California, site recovery and clean-up is handled by its Consolidated Debris Removal Program under the governor’s Office of Emergency Services that coordinates with local governments.

Benefits of utilizing public agencies and programs

The primary benefit of using public agencies is that there are no out-of-pocket costs for this phase of your home rebuild. If you are working with a limited budget or choose to allocate more of your budget toward fire-resistant site work, design, and construction, working with state and local governments can be a good choice.

A downside to this option is the time it takes to perform and complete debris removal and site clean-up. This phase can increase overall project time and final home delivery significantly when using a public agency or program because of the vast amount of acreage requiring clean-up. Five of the 20 largest fires in California occurred in 2020 and burned approximately 4.2 million acres according to the Insurance Information Institute. The demand and strain on state and local resources translate to lengthier wait times to service the many communities requiring assistance and relief.

Benefits of private removal and clean-up services

For families that have experienced total home loss, time is critical. Any opportunity to reduce the amount of time spent in upheaval and homelessness moves people further along on the journey to recovery. That’s why some pursue private removal and clean-up services after a wildfire. Private companies can work much faster and have more flexibility, which can significantly reduce the overall construction timeline.

Also a plus, most insurance carriers provide a debris removal and site clean-up benefit, however there is an additional out-of-pocket cost. Depending on your insurance carrier, the clean-up costs could come from a policy’s dwelling benefit, in the form of a flat fee, or a percentage of the total dwelling limit. The average cost to the homeowner is $10,000 to $15,000, however contact your adjuster or agent for details on your specific policy.

Deciding which site clean-up solution is best for you and your family will depend on many factors, including your policy, budget, and desired project timeline. We have worked with families early on in their home rebuilds to help them with this important step in preparation for construction. If you are interested in learning more about how to start rebuilding your home after a wildfire or residential fire, please contact the Stillwater Dwellings team at 800.691.7302 or [email protected].

Part 2 in this series, discusses the next steps in the process, including surveying, zoning, and understanding local jurisdiction requirements to streamline permit approvals.

Go To Part 2

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