Post Disaster: First Steps After a Fire – Part A

For All Total Loss and Partial Loss Fire Survivors

Immediately After You Lose Your Home, or the Use of Your Home, after a Fire

  1. Ensure the safety of yourself, your family, and your pets. Do not attempt to go to your home site until it is deemed safe to do so. See Some safety tips
  2. Immediately start looking for housing; let all your family/friends know you are looking. Insureds:  See more info in Part B
  3. Get at least two notebooks – One to record all insurance-related items, and one to record everything else (phone calls, mileage, housing searches, contact phone numbers and email address of friends, neighbors, government agencies, insurance, etc, even if you have a smart phone).
  4. Medications/Medical Devices:  Contact your doctor/insurance for replacements. Most health plans include free replacement of these items after a disaster, but not all their employees know this
  5. Get a PO Box, use that address immediately, and start mail forwarding
  6. If you have insurance, contact your agent to: 1) get a $5k-30k advance for immediate needs; 2) start your claim; 3) ask for a complete copy of your policy (sometimes it is the adjuster who can get this for you)
  7. LAC/DRC/Shelters – Register with FEMA and Red Cross immediately.  See below for more.
  8. Replace or get a smartphone, laptop, or other smart device as necessary.
  9. Create a new email address just for post-fire issues (see more below).
  10. Consider getting a credit card that earns miles or points … you’ll be spending a lot more than you expect in a short period.
  11. Send your non-fire-survivor friends and families this info:  A Message to Friends & Family of Fire Survivors
  12. Parents:
    1. Keep school(s) informed of contact information and living location.
    2. Create some normalcy for children in the form of a few toys they used to have, favorite books, usual foods, etc. Order on Amazon and/or tell friends that’s what you need.  A familiar bedtime book can make a difference.
    3. Don’t hesitate to get counseling for children and teens.  They may take a while to communicate how sad, scared or worried they are. Getting help sooner is better, before the trauma sets in.
    4. Become informed around safety precautions with smoke and debris toxins.  Developing bodies are more susceptible.

First Couple of Weeks – FEMA / Red Cross / LAC / DRC

  1. At a shelter, online, or the LAC or DRC (defined below), even if you don’t think you qualify or need it, register with:  FEMA (federally declared disaster); SBA (state or federally declared disaster); Red Cross; online apps available.  Most of the aid coming in will use these lists as a point of contact and will help to ensure that you don’t get left out of anything. If possible, try to register for FEMA before your first visit to the LAC or DRC.
  2. Federally declared disaster areas:  usually, a Local Assistance Center (“LAC”) or Disaster Assistance Center (“DRC”) will be established as a one-stop shop to deal with Federal agencies (passports, social security, etc); State agencies (DMV, etc.); Local agencies (Assessor, utilities, etc.).  Local news and town halls will announce their establishment. See Camp, Hill, Woolsey Fires Official Disaster Relief Center information
  3. RESOURCE: Fire Recovery Guide 2020 Published by the Office of Congress Representative Mike Thompson

First Couple of Weeks – Notifications (Friends and family can help with some of this)

  1. Cancel electric, gas/propane, water, phone, cable, pest control, gardener, pool sweep, landlord, etc.
  2. Cancel or change newspaper delivery address.
  3. Call other insurance providers (cars, specialty items), as necessary.
  4. Notify employer, babysitters, family, friends, etc., of new contact information.
  5. Change your Voter Registration mailing address.

First Couple of Weeks and Ongoing – Social Media

  1. (With your newly created recovery-related email address), join as many social media pages as you can stand with that new email address … sorry to say that social media has been more effective in some ways (keep your current email address for friends and family).
  2. Join NextDoor, FB, Twitter, etc., for neighborhood groups, insureds groups, fire-related news or support, rebuilding information, city and county government recovery information, etc.

First Couple of Weeks and Ongoing – Network

  1. Strength and Comfort in Numbers. You are not going through this alone. Although everyone’s experience is going to be different, the commonalities are where you will find strength.
  2. Get involved in your community. Form or join a neighborhood asap.  Start by reaching out to as many neighbors as you have contact information for and spread the word.  Start a FB private group or Google Group, etc., to create a way for your neighborhood to stay connected and provide essential recovery information.  We had a “standing” neighbor who helped several email groups form.  Reach See the Neighborhoods page for more [Note: I am working on making that page more useful to non-Sonoma County folks].
  3. Let people do things for you. Do you have a friend that you can send to the store to buy you some basic clothes or comfort foods? Let them do it – they want to help and you don’t need to spend time doing these errands. (The “fun” of shopping is gone…it quickly becomes a chore because you don’t want a new shirt, you want the one that you always liked to wear but now it’s gone and you are sad/mad.) Ask them to help you do post-fire “chores,” invite you over for a meal, help with your personal property inventory, pick up your kids from school, etc.

First Few Weeks – Visit Your Home Site, Possibly Sift, Take Pictures

  1. Safety First.  Do not go to your home site until it is deemed safe to.
  2. Do not touch anything with your bare hands; your home site is now a toxic, hazardous area.
  3. You do not have to visit or sift, BUT if you don’t visit, ask someone to safely take pictures of your home site prior to any sifting or clean-up; take many pictures from multiple angles (for insurance).
  4. If you do intend on visiting, taking pictures, or sifting:  before you go, DO NOT SKIMP ON GETTING AND WEARING:  Sturdy boots (try Payless Shoe Source or Goodwill for cheap and disposable shoes); gogglesN95 or better respirator masksheavy pants and long sleeve shirts (try Goodwill since you will need to discard these clothes); hat/hair coveringheavy work gloves (not plastic or latex, etc).  Wear new ones of these things every day you go.  In addition, wear disposable heavy duty boot covers and coveralls if desired. You can get a bucket or two to carry found items and small garden tools to sift. Wear N95 masks even if only visiting. Those masks would be discarded at least every day, if not more often. See these safety tips: https:
  5. Do not endanger yourself. Children and any health-vulnerable people are urged to not go to burn zones. Healthy people may not want to go to burn zones.

First Few Weeks – SBA Loans

  1. You may need to be registered with FEMA first; there usually exists a deadline for applying.
  2. You will likely be told to apply.
  3. You should apply even if you don’t think you need it.
  4. You will likely apply because you may be uninsured, underinsured, fear being underinsured, or will need a bridge loan (because your mortgage lender will keep control of the amount of your insurance payouts equal to your mortgage balance).
  5. You will likely be rejected, given a small amount, or given a large amount and then have it taken away.  Or be told that your insurance coverage is enough (!).
  6. You will likely want to not bother with a “reconsideration” because you have too much on your plate or you think they’ll just say no, or feel convinced that you don’t qualify.
  7. We strongly suggest that you consider biting the bullet and spending the time on the reconsideration; it may be easier than you think and worth it.  Contact your US Representative’s local office for help.  If they don’t know how to help, have them call Rep. Huffman’s office or Rep. Thompson’s office to learn how to deal with this.
  8. We experienced all of the above BUT many of us did give up hope and didn’t pursue it.  We didn’t know that reconsideration might really work.

Ongoing – Resources

  1. Check out Helping Handbook:  A Resource for Individuals, Families, and Small Businesses by Morrison Foerster, a large law firm not interested in soliciting your business.  Tons of resources, contacts, etc.
  2. Your City and / or County will likely establish a disaster-recovery webpage.
  3. Attend recovery-related Town Halls held by government agencies.
  4. Contact your local LegalAid and attend their workshops. You do not need to have a “legal problem” to get help with housing, FEMA applications, and other post-disaster questions and issues.
  5. Emotional Recovery Resources (check your City or County recovery website for resources specific to your area)
  6. Government Entities.  You may need to call more than one person, agency, etc.
    • US Congressmember, for example:
      • Federal issues such as telecommunications (eg ATT, Comcast – ps they shouldn’t be charging you for destroyed equipment–it’s just good business sense)
      • SBA (see above)
      • FEMA
      • Become familiar with and invite one of their field reps to regularly attend your neighborhood meetings.
    • State Senator, for example:
    • Local Government.  I’ve found that I’ve had to call around to find the correct department or the folks willing or able to help.  And sometimes it’s from surprising places.  One place/office I thought I could get help from was unwilling/unable.  Another one who I thought was the wrong person, turned out to be the right person.  County and City staff can sometimes help you with organizing your neighborhood, so reach out to them.

Ongoing – Emotional Health

  1. Put the metaphorical “oxygen mask” on yourself first, then on those who depend on you.
  2. Eat ~ Hydrate ~ Move ~ Sleep (eye roll) ~ Spend time with loved ones – I can’t do everything on this list every day.  I don’t beat myself up if I don’t.  I use it as a focus point, not as more pressure.  I didn’t bother with trying to get more sleep in the first six months.  I knew it would eventually come.
  3. Emotional Recovery Resources (check your City or County recovery website for resources specific to your area)
  4. If you join FB, NextDoor, neighborhood (email) groups with other fire survivors, you may find some solace in the sense of community, even if the topics are about rebuilding, insurance, or other topics not related to emotional support.
  5. Seek out FB and community organizations offering emotional support.
  6. Everyone deals with this stuff differently. Be accepting of yourself.  Not everyone will grieve on the same timeline and the same way.  You may feel that you have moved past the worst of the emotion and then later have a time period where you feel depressed or cry for no direct reason.  Everyone processes differently and just let your emotions process, when they feel ready and don’t judge yourself that you should be “over” a certain stage by now or expect that you might not have relapses where you are revisiting your loss and grief.
  7. I know you are sick of answering some of the well-meaning, ignorant, or outright ridiculous questions and comments. Truly. We know.
  8. And sometimes waking up is the best you can do today.

Go to Part B – FOR INSURED FIRE SURVIVORS, Including Partial Loss Survivors

Please Note:  The information here comes from the experiences of the 2017 Sonoma Complex Fire Siege fire survivors, 2015 Valley Fire (Lake County), other fire survivors, United Policyholders, Neighbors Together Strong and Resilient, and other sources.  Thank you, neighbors, for sharing your knowledge. Some items in this post (originally written in Nov 2018) only apply to State-declared and/or Federally declared disasters; however, much of it applies to most fire survivors. The Kincade Fire (Oct 2019) is a State-declared emergency as of 10/29/19.

August 20, 2020 –  Some of the below applies only if a fire has been declared an emergency and government-sponsored responses such as FEMA, or Local Assistance Center (“LAC”), or Disaster Recovery Center (“DRC”) are activated only under certain situations. The LNU and the CZU Lightning Complex Fires have been declared a federal disaster and the recovery does qualify for federal assistance. (press release)

Part A is applicable to total loss fire survivors (renters and homeowners with or without insurance), and some of it is applicable to partial loss/smoke damage fire survivors with or without insurance. 

Part B is specific to those with insurance and is in addition to Part A.

  • This information is based on prior fire survivor experiences; your experience may be different.
  • Things change; this information is not meant to be comprehensive.
  • Please always be cautious and also check current agencies and laws. 

Coffey Strong does not provide any advice or endorse any service provider or agency.