California wildfire season has arrived, reminding us that it's time to prepare for it and other natural disasters
Weather is crazy year round, but we still have official seasons for Mother Nature's worst moods.
Spring, while a welcome relief from winter's icy grip, also brings with it some of the worst natural disasters. It's the traditional time for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. As the temperatures heat up, so does the Atlantic hurricane season, which kicks off on June 1.
And in California, the Santa Ana winds rake the landscape, spreading wildfires.
One spring I was in Southern California on a business trip. As I waited outside the hotel one morning for my ride to some meetings, I marveled at falling flakes. This can't be snow, can it, I wondered.
No, it wasn't. It was ash from the wildfires burning nearby.
I was even more amazed by my coworker who seemed oblivious to the fires adjacent to the highway as she drove us into the office.
I suppose you eventually get used to anything or you move. But you also need to prepare for the possibility that the worst could happen wherever you live.
There are two types of disaster preparations you need to make, financial and physical.
Since this is a tax blog, let's start with the financial preparations to have in place in case you have to leave your home on a moment's notice.
Have a clear credit card: If you're forced out of your home and don't have friends or family nearby, you'll probably have to stay in a hotel or motel. Be sure you have a credit card that's got a big enough credit balance to cover your accommodations and other necessities for several weeks.
Grab some cash, too. Your temporary relocation site might not be near a fee-free ATM, so get some money from your home bank's machine before you leave the area.
Make sure your insurance is in order: I sincerely hope that you don't have to contact your insurance agent. But if you do, make sure that your policy provides proper coverage.
Check with your agent now and make any necessary changes before you need to make a claim. This includes coverage on your home and car.
Don't forget about medical insurance. If you or a family member is injured in the disaster or its wake, the last thing you want is to have to hassle with medical providers over what treatments are or aren't covered.
Also make sure you have your medical records handy. This will help if you end up at a new doctor's office.
And refill any prescriptions that are running low. You might not be able to get to your regular pharmacy for a while.Gather your financial documents: In addition to your insurance and medical records, gather up other important financial documents, as well as a list of your bank account numbers and Social Security numbers.
The best move is to make copies of all your financial documents and then put the originals in a safety deposit box or send them to a trusted relative for safekeeping. You also can scan the material into your computer and then save it to a CD, flash drive or cloud account.
Part of this collection should be a thorough inventory of your home, both the items inside and your surrounding property.
If you do have to file claims for disaster damage, this data will help.
Take tax material, too: Speaking of claims, copies of tax records should be in your financial disaster kit.
Tax material, especially copies of previous years' filing and the supporting records, can be crucial to claiming storm-related losses on an amended or current year tax return.
The records also are necessary if you're applying for loans to help in your recovery efforts
Safeguarding your home: OK, you have your financial disaster kit ready in case you have to evacuate. Now let's look at what you can do to protect your home if you live in a wildfire-prone area.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a website devoted to preparations for all types of natural disasters. When it comes to wildfires, it recommends:
- Regularly clean roof and gutters. A blowing spark can ignite such debris.
- Use 1/8-inch mesh screen beneath porches, decks, floor areas, and the home itself. Also, screen openings to floors, roof and attic. This can keep flammable material from gathering in these areas.
- Keep household items that can be used as fire tools handy. This includes a rake, ax, handsaw or chain saw, bucket, shovel and a ladder that will reach your roof.
- Consider installing protective shutters or heavy fire-resistant drapes.
- Clear items that will burn from around the house, including wood piles, lawn furniture, barbecue grills and tarp coverings.
- Identify and maintain an adequate outside water source such as a small pond, cistern, well, swimming pool or hydrant.
- Have a garden hose that is long enough to reach any area of the home and other structures on the property.
- Make sure each family member knows where fire extinguishers are kept and how to use them.
You can find more tips on FEMA's wildfire page, as well as at Firewise, a national program co-sponsored by the USDA Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters that teaches people and communities how to adapt to living with wildfire.
My neighborhood participates in Firewise. The value or preparing for the possibility of fire was made very clear to us over the 2011 Labor Day weekend when a section of the community across the canyon from us literally went up in flames. A small spark plus high winds equaled dozens of homes lost, and that was just a small part of the wildfire damage in Texas that year.
So please take fire and other natural disaster threats seriously. Prepare. Know what recovery help is available if you need it.
Most of all, stay safe.
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