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Insurance advice offered for victims of wildfires

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(The Center Square) – The arrival of cooler temperatures with the possibility of rain Tuesday was welcomed by firefighters continuing suppression and cleanup efforts in the aftermath of two wildfires that ravaged parts of Spokane County earlier this month.

Officials have estimated that more than 360 homes and hundreds more outbuildings were destroyed by the Gray Road Fire near Medical Lake and the Oregon Road Fire near the small community of Elk. There were two related deaths and scores of residents have been displaced. Many are just returning now to their properties to assess their losses.

Both state and federal authorities have declared emergency disaster designations for the affected areas. Last week, state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler issued an emergency order requiring all property and casualty insurers to provide additional protections for policyholders affected by the two fires.

The emergency order applies to homeowner, renter, auto, and commercial insurance policies and extends to Oct. 17, said Kreidler. Insurers are directed to provide grace periods up to 45 days for non-payment of premiums, cease canceling any policy for non-payment unless requested by the policyholder, and suspend a 45-day notice requirement for non-renewal notices.

“We’ve all seen the devastation caused by the ongoing wildfires in Eastern Washington,” Kreidler said in a news release. “People are worried about their own and their families’ safety and protecting their property. I don’t want them worrying about their insurance coverage while the emergency is ongoing and the difficult recovery for the community begins.”

As cleanup and rebuilding efforts move forward, several insurance trades associations have issued an advisory to residents and property owners urging caution to avoid scams when hiring a contractor or public insurance adjuster.

“Wildfire survivors who experience damage need to take the time to check the credentials of the businesses and individuals they are considering hiring to repair their property,” said Mark Sektan, vice president of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, in a news release from the Insurance Information Institute.

“Scammers often lie and say they are working on behalf of the insurance company,” added Janet Ruiz, III director of strategic communications. “Don’t feel rushed or afraid to ask for referrals and licenses, and check those license numbers with the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries.”

Typically, an insurer will provide an adjuster at no cost to a policyholder for their claim. If the policyholder opts to hire a public adjuster unaffiliated with the insurer, that individual will take part of the insurance proceeds for compensation.

Owners are encouraged to contact their insurance company as soon as possible, inventory their losses and photograph the damage, save receipts, and document additional living expenses such as temporary housing, restaurant meals, overnight parking, laundry services, and other expenses which may be covered by policies.

When considering a contractor for repairs, suggested tips include a number of “Do’s and Don’ts”:

DO: Get recommendations your insurer, friends or neighbors; get three written estimates for the work and compare bids; verify the contractor is licensed and bonded with the state; check credentials with the Better Business Bureau and state Attorney General’s office; get a detailed written contract that specifies costs for materials and labor and estimated start/finish dates; be wary of someone offering unsolicited repairs and claiming they’re endorsed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency – FEMA does not endorse repair contractors.

DON’T: pay in full for work “up front” – most contractors require a reasonable down payment but no payment should be made without a written contract; don’t sign a contract with blank spaces; don’t pay in cash – a check or credit card provides a record of payments to a contractor.

The two rapidly-moving blazes began on the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 18, driven by strong gusting winds with temperatures in the upper 90s and low humidity. Their causes remain under investigation. Combined, the two fires have burned nearly 21,000 acres and are roughly 80% contained. Over 1,000 fire personnel are involved with 22 crews and 84 engines. Most sections are transitioning from mop-up activities to being patrolled.

Persons in the fire zones are cautioned about rain which can make roads slippery and high winds that can cause flareups and cause limbs to fall from damaged trees. A community meeting focused on debris management and cleanup was scheduled Tuesday evening by Spokane County Emergency Management at Riverside High School in Chattaroy.

The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office has identified the two deceased victims as 86-year-old Carl Grub at the Gray Fire and 49-year-old Alex Brown at the Oregon Road Fire.

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