A fire can strike at any moment and devastate homes and even entire communities. The potential property damage can be catastrophic, and affected homeowners often face not only the physical and emotional consequences of such an event but also the stress of pursuing a fire damage claim with their homeowner’s insurance company.
Statistically, home structure fires occur with alarming frequency in the country. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fire departments across the country responded to an estimated 357,000 home structure fires each year from 2009 through 2013. Such fires caused 2,470 deaths and 12,890 injuries during that period, and regarding monetary losses, caused $6.9 billion in direct property damage.
In Florida alone, there were 115 reported fire-related fatalities in 2014, and residential property losses amounting to approximately $234 million. If you have suffered a residential fire in South Florida and your insurance provider denied your claim for losses, you should seek the help of an experienced homeowner’s property claims lawyer at Englander Peebles. Experienced legal representation can assist you in pursuing fire damage claims with your insurance company.
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Causes of Residential Fire Damage
There are many possible causes of damaging residential building fires. The U.S. Fire Administration collects statistical information about residential building fires and classifies such events into two general types based on severity.
The first type is a confined fire, which is a fire limited to particular kinds of equipment or objects. Confined fires are small fire occurrences that do not spread beyond specific objects or equipment such as pots or fireplaces. These fires rarely result in any serious injury or loss and often do not cause significant property loss.
The second type of fire is a non-confined fire which is not limited by particular objects or equipment. This kind of fire tends to be more severe, with a higher likelihood of causing fatalities and extensive property losses.
Of these two types of fires, non-confined fires accounted for approximately fifty percent of residential building fires, while the other half consisted of confined fires. Over a three-year period from 2012 to 2014, confined residential fires caused no fatalities and 7.3 injuries per 1,000 fires, with an average of around $200 worth of losses per fire. On the other hand, non-confined residential building fires caused 11 fatalities and 47.1 injuries per 1,000 fires, with an average of around $32,510 worth of losses per fire.
The National Fire Protection Association estimates that around 22,600 fires are caused each year by lightning, resulting in approximately $451 million in property damage annually. While many of these fires took place outdoors, the majority of the property damage was from residential building fires.
Florida has a reputation as the lightning capital of the U.S., with lightning storms occurring at around 100 days per year. In fact, Florida ranks first in the country in the number of fatalities per year due to lightning, with 10 to 13 people killed in the state each year, as compared with the nationwide fatality rate of 100 individuals per year. Around 600 are injured in the country every year, 30 of whom are injured in Florida.
According to the Florida Fire Marshal’s office, it investigated over 1,180 fires across the state from 2010 through 2014 where it confirmed lightning as the cause. In 2014 alone, lightning caused at least 265 fires in Florida. These types of fires led to around 10,000 insurance claims in Florida that year, which cements Florida’s placement as the first in the country for having the most lightning-related insurance claims. On average, insurance companies paid out $7,947 per lightning claim in 2015.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, 2015 was a record year for the number of acres burned in the United States due to wildfires. During that year, there was a total of 68,151 wildfires that burned around 10,125,149 acres of land in the country. The Insurance Information Institute ranks Florida in eighth place in the country in 2015 for having 2,422 wildfires and tenth for acreage burned totaling 73,432 total acres.
Wildfire damage to residential buildings may be covered by a homeowners’ insurance policy. Many policies may also include costly service charges made by fire departments who respond to a residential fire. Some policies may even provide coverage for temporary living expenses if you and your family are forced to evacuate your residence because of the threat of a wildfire.
However, some policies may specifically exclude wildfires from coverage, in which case the homeowners should ensure that an appropriate rider is present to fill in the gap in coverage.
The U.S. Fire Administration’s latest topical report on residential building fires covering the period of 2012-2014 listed cooking as the top cause of such fires – 49 percent. Coincidentally, such fires occurred most frequently during the early evening from 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM. Additionally, 21 percent of non-confined residential building fires began in kitchens and other cooking areas. In Florida, over 26 percent of residential building fires originate from kitchen areas.
Unattended cooking appears to be the most common factor at play when it comes to residential cooking fires. People tend to leave the kitchen and forget that they are cooking something, especially frying, which poses the highest risk. Two-thirds of these home cooking fires began with the ignition of food or other materials.
Cooktops or cooking ranges accounted for most of the home cooking fire accidents at 61 percent, followed by ovens at 13 percent. Finally, over half of reported residential fire injuries from cooking took place when the injured person tried to fight the fire himself or herself.
Defective Wiring or Electrical Appliances
According to the National Fire Protection Association, around 47,700 residential building fires involved electrical malfunction or failure as a contributing factor to a fire in 2011. These fires caused 1,570 injuries, 418 fatalities, and around $1.4 billion in property damage.
Nearly half of the reported non-confined residential building fires from 2007 through 2011 where electrical malfunction or failure was a factor had some form of wiring or lighting equipment involved in the initial ignition of the fire. Other types of electrical equipment involved in igniting the fire were fans (6 percent), washers or dryers (6 percent), space heaters (4 percent), air conditioners (4 percent), water heaters (3 percent), and electric ranges (3 percent).
Between 2009 and 2013, various fire departments across the country responded to around 9,300 residential building fires that were caused by candles. They cause an annual average of 86 fatalities, 827 injuries, and $347 million in property damage.
More than a third of candle fires in residential buildings start in the bedroom, followed by the living room, then the bathroom. Further, almost 58 percent of these fires start when something that could easily burn, such as furniture, came too close to the candle.
Residential Fires That Cause Partial Losses
Residential fires that cause some damage but do not completely ravage the structure raises certain issues when it comes to homeowners’ insurance claims. Special issues that may arise when it comes to partial loss residential fires include:
Homeowners often focus on fire damage that is immediately visible, which is often the most disturbing aspect of a fire. However, secondary or hidden damage from a residential fire, such as mold, water, soot, corrosion, and odor, are often just as severe despite the fact that they are not immediately discernible.
In fact, some of the worst and most costly damage from a residential fire is often invisible to the homeowner and, if the homeowner fails to exercise due diligence and conduct a thorough property inspection and legal consultation, such damage may not be known until long after the homeowner settles with his or her insurance provider.
Damage From Smoke
One of the most common hidden damage to a residence after a fire is damage from smoke. This kind of harm is not readily apparent, and while most people think that all smoke is the same, it is not. Depending on the kind of material that served as fuel for the fire, smoke damage may be invisible, odorless, and have the potential to be toxic.
Part of damage remediation after a residential fire is the thorough removal of all smoke deposits to prevent the return of toxic fumes that can damage the respiratory systems of inhabitants.
Damaged Electronic Equipment and Wiring
Another form of hidden fire damage that is often difficult to discern is damaged electronic equipment. Soot and acids carried by smoke have a corrosive effect on electronics. Caustic chemicals may become deposited inside electronic equipment like televisions, cameras, audio systems, etc. which will only further damage the object once they are turned on.
Unless properly remediated, this kind of hidden damage may result in significant expenses that may only become apparent after the insurance company has settled the claim.
Damage to electrical wiring systems may also be hidden. Copper wires are excellent conductors of heat, and any form of heat damage to the insulation of electric wiring may extend into ceilings and walls without any visible signs of damage on the surface. Part of remediation may include thoroughly extracting damaged wiring, which, if left unchecked, may cause another fire.
Need for Thorough Inspection
In partial loss situations, the fact that there is little to no visible damage highlights the need for very thorough inspections. Extreme heat, smoke, or fire retardants may have caused damage that can only be revealed by experienced professionals who know what they are looking for.
Homeowners should never just accept the evaluation of the adjuster hired by the insurer – they require the services of independent professionals in addition to the adjuster, such as contractors, structural engineers, and industrial hygienists. A thorough inspection should include the following:
- Examining the retaining wall or the foundation. Structural iron and steel may transfer extreme heat which may destabilize those portions of the house.
- Examining whether there is any damage to the roof due to burning embers. If the roof was subjected to extreme heat, its structure might be compromised. Additionally, the wood under the roofing material may have water stains and begin to mold. Gutters may also warp and melt, and a visual inspection from a distance may reveal any warping or sagging.
- Checking for damage to windows: Extreme heat may cause window frames to blister, discolor, or even melt. Glass may also start to warp and discolor due to extreme heat. If windows are warped, moisture issues may develop and cause mold problems. If the window is double-paned, fire damage may result in a ripple on the seal between the panes along the glass perimeter.
- Checking for damage to walls: Different wall materials may react badly to extreme heat. Outside sidings may melt after being exposed to heat. Any stucco has the possibility of spalling and cracking because of dehydration. Concrete can also weaken after extreme heat exposure, which may require structural engineers to conduct various kinds of testing to determine damage.
- Examing pipes, ducts, and connectors: These may be damaged and need thorough checking.
Insurance Coverage for Fire Damage
Homeowners’ insurance policies usually cover fire damage to residential properties. There are two most common kinds of policies – all risks policies and named perils policies.
Named perils policies only provide insurance coverage against listed perils or causes, and any other perils would be excluded. However, all risks policies cover any cause of property damage unless a specific provision of the policy excludes the loss. With all risks policies, insurance companies bear the burden of proving the loss was excluded.
Even with all risks policies, homeowners should still carefully examine the policy for any limitations and deductibles that may affect the coverage amount and the circumstances in which the company will pay claims. Indeed, certain policy limitations, exclusions, and deductibles may influence the amount of coverage and the conditions under which claims will be paid.
Clean-up of Mold, Ash, and Smoke
Recently, more and more insurance companies have added exclusions to homeowners’ insurance policies regarding mold damage. The application of these exclusions depends on the type of damage and the language of the exclusion in the insurance policy.
However, even if there is an applicable mold exclusion, the policy still likely covers cleanup activities and the use of drying methods such as fans. Additionally, if the insurance company fails to pay for drying and clean-up, which causes the development of mold, the damage will likely be covered even with the existing mold exclusion.
Finally, fire suppression efforts may also cause mold to develop inside the residential structure’s walls, or leave the home exposed to weather elements that encourage the development of mold. This type of mold damage is usually covered by a standard homeowners’ insurance policy. Homeowners should pay special attention to the drywall on both the exterior and interior of the house because it is notorious for mold damage. Such drywall must be dried and repaired properly.
Smoke damage is usually a covered loss in most homeowners’ insurance policies. Smoke can damage objects inside a home that are made of porous materials such as unfinished wood, rugs, fabrics, or curtains. While some items may be cleaned, others may require replacement.
Additionally, some flooring materials such as marble or tile may be discolored by smoke. An insurance company will probably provide coverage for the clean-up of smoke and ash but may dispute whether replacing an item is necessary if it believes a clean-up is sufficient.
Filing Insurance Claims for Fire Damage and Documenting the Damage
Homeowners should file a claim with their homeowner’s insurance provider as quickly as possible after a fire. Filing a claim immediately after a fire may prevent delays in the claims process and lessens the likelihood of any errors in the investigation of events and valuation of losses. Additionally, filing the claim without delay may enable homeowners to begin repairs sooner and prevent any further damage to the residence.
As a regular part of the process of filing a homeowners’ insurance claim, policyholders are typically required to document the damaged property and estimate how much the damages cost. Homeowners who experience fire damage should document and take photographs as soon as possible.
Taking this action will help the insurance company determine what damage was caused by the fire and what fire suppression efforts may have caused damage. If the insurance company delays processing the claim, photographs may also help document any further damage that occurs due to the delay in claims processing by the insurance company.
If the insurance company delays approval and payment of a fire damage claim because it suspects the homeowner of arson, the insurance company must perform a thorough investigation as soon as possible. The insurance company must cover all the costs for completing this investigation.
In certain cases, insurance companies may indicate that it has cause to suspect the homeowner committed arson so that it can delay or deny a valid claim. If a homeowner believes that the insurance company is engaging in this type of conduct, he or she should consult with an insurance attorney with experience in pursuing fire damage claims right away.
If an insurer denies a fire damage claim, homeowners should contact an attorney immediately. An experienced attorney who understands the homeowners’ insurance claim process may be able to provide the homeowner with assistance in determining if the insurer denied the claim for legitimate reasons.
Fire damage lawyers who have experience dealing with insurance companies may be able to help homeowners document losses and contest an unfair interpretation of the insurance policy. If an insurer is denying a claim unethically, simply having an attorney represent the homeowner may be sufficient to cause the insurer to approve the claim. If necessary, an attorney may also be able to pursue a suit against an insurer to recover costs associated with legitimately-filed fire damage claims.
Contact Englander Peebles for a Free Consultation on Fire Damage Claims
If you have suffered fire-related property damage to your home, it is important that you consult with a South Florida Fire Damage Attorney right away. The attorneys at Englander Peebles will review your homeowner’s insurance policy and assist you in navigating the insurance claim process.
We will advocate for you to receive compensation under your insurance policy so that you can repair or replace your property. Don’t fight your insurer alone. Contact Englander Peebles today at (954) 231-1384 or through our online contact form to schedule a free, initial consultation.