Surviving a Wildfire

We have been shocked and saddened by the damage caused by the Central Texas fires this month. Our sincere thoughts and prayers are with everyone who has been affected by the fire. We are very grateful for those who were on the front lines, fighting fires and for so many in our communities helping people.

Now that a few weeks have passed, we took the opportunity to catch up with a few of our former clients who experienced the trauma of a fire in their homes and talk about thier experiences. These are 2 of the many homes we have helped with fire reconstruction since 2001.

Brad and Gina Harper lost their Travis Country home to fire about 8 ½ years ago. I remember in the early days of our discussions, Gina said that she didn’t want to rebuild unless there were big improvements. They did rebuild with the improvements that they desired and have been happy in their new home.

Mark and Jane Stein lost their Northwest Hills home to fire last summer and they have just recently moved back into their newly constructed home.

Brad and Gina both said in losing their home, they experienced the typical stages of grief with the added process of building a home. This seemed overwhelming at first. Gina said “I was still in shock in the early days while we began working with the insurance adjuster. Once we made up our mind that we were going to stay and rebuild, it became an opportunity.”

Mark said that one of the biggest surprises was the insurance process. “The level of detail in recollection to get your full claim value was overwhelming. We thought they would take a look at the square footage of the damaged home and just cut a check.” The Steins said that anyone in this situation should be prepared for a lengthy process as they are still today working the claim and submitting receipts for replaced items.

Brad also said that they were unprepared for the insurance process. He said “Don’t think it can’t happen to you.” Check your insurance policy and add insurance riders for special items that might not be covered. Take inventory of your contents and make it easy for yourself by walking through your home with a video camera. He also said in the process of replacing contents, be thoughtful about what things you might replace vs. refurbish. In the Harper’s case, there were some items that were only damaged by smoke and water. “You are dealing with a fixed pot of money.” Brad suggested to take time to decide if it is worth refurbishing or possibly cheaper to just replace the item.

One of the best things the Steins said they did was to hire a public adjuster. This is someone who knows the ins and outs of the process and who can represent you to the insurance company in order to get the maximum claim benefit allowed. A public adjuster’s fee is based upon the percentage of recaptured funds. Mark said he was sure that they were able to get far more out of their claim than they would have without the adjuster.

Mark also suggested to check references and carefully consider the professionals you will work with. He was happy to find a CPBD building designer with realistic fees and a competent builder; both with personalities that he could enjoy working with. He also said in hind sight, he would create a time line as a framework to help the planning and construction be in sync with the schedule of the insurance company.

Jane said one of the things that surprised her was the time it took for the city to approve of their permit. There is no way to get around this except to simply expect delays.

During the design process, Brad was happy that we, as their building designer, asked him “how do you use the space?” This helped them make the best design decisions for what didn’t work in their prior home and for the kinds of spaces that did work.

“Don’t be in a hurry” was Brads best advice. While keeping on track with the insurance company’s time frame, don’t feel rushed and skip through decision making. “Take a step back, make thoughtful decisions and be a wise and careful shopper.”

The Harper’s and the Steins’ both have the same perspective after this experience; that the end result was worth the effort. Neither family had a loss life, only a loss of property. Jane said “There was trauma, but it was not permanent.”. To those who are going through this now Mark and Jane both said, “You are going to be OK.” Both families now have homes that are better than what they had before, and that they gained perspective on what is important.

Rebuilding or relocating after a fire is a personal choice.  If you choose to rebuild, here are some suggestions that we think are important to Rebuild it Better.;

Hire an engineer to survey the damage and evaluate the conditions of the remaining structure to find out if any parts of the wall, roof or foundation structure is salvageable.

Build a more energy efficient home by creating a better design and better construction methods.   A home that is designed right for you and your site and the salvaged home.  Even if you are able to salvage parts of the damaged structure, it is possible to create a better design with what is available.  With any remodeling project, you have an excellent opportunity to build a home that is sealed tight, better insulated and protected.

Use fire-resistant materials such as hardi-board siding and metal roofing.  Seal all gaps or lay siding so that there are no gaps and cracks that can allow sparks to get through.

Seal your home and your attic air tight.  A sealed home and attic is not only more energy efficient, but will help keep sparks and embers from penetrating into your attic and through the cracks in your home.

Build concrete decks instead of wood decks.  Wood decks on the back of a home are very vulnerable to fire.  Concrete decks can be built over wood framing wrapped and sealed with hardi-panel or other fire-resistant materials.

Install lawn sprinklers Consider which side of your home might be most vulnerable to fire such as a prairie or hillside and install lawn sprinklers.  If the event of fire, the sprinklers could keep the ground wet and hold off a fire potentially until firefighters can arrive.

Create a 30 foot to 30 yard defensible area around your home that firefighters can drive up to. 

As long as drought conditions remain, we are all at risk of fire
and this fall we will have many other opportunities for north
winds. Not a neighborhood in the Austin area is less than a few
miles from a road side, green belt or natural area where a fire
could be started.

Here are some other helpful and interesting links.

Contact your realtor to help you find a temporary residence or talk about relocating.  Go to the Austin Board of Realtors Austin Home Search site specifically created for disaster relief.

This is a great list of things to protect your family from fire that every home owner should do.

The HBA of Austin published a very informative article on how to choose a reputable builder.

While we wait for rain, Here are some really great links to help our lawns and trees.

Caring for Trees in a Dry Climate

Landscape Conversion Incentive: Lawn Remodel Option

FREE Soil Moisture Meters


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