Oregon is currently in the midst of its worst wildfire season in living memory. Driven by dry temperatures and strong easterly winds, the fires took hold suddenly and consumed more than one million acres in just a matter of days. Even more unusual, large fires began burning west of cascade mountains, which has historically seen limited wildfire activity. Several small Oregon towns have burned to the ground. Even large communities like Medford and Ashland saw wildfire losses. Closer to home, a large portion of Clackamas County remains under Level 3 “Go Now” evacuation orders with uncontrolled fires burning nearby. At one point, Oregon City and Canby — both larger communities not far from Portland — were under Level 2 “Get Ready” evacuation orders. As the fires burned, smoke blanketed Portland and the surrounding suburbs, creating the worst air quality in the world. This unprecedented situation has led to significant disruptions, extensive property damage, and loss of life. And the ripple effects are beginning to extend into the insurance market.

Binding Restrictions Now in Place

To learn more about how the insurance market is reacting to Oregon’s wildfire situation, we contacted Matt Elliott, a Farmer’s Insurance agent working out of Forest Grove. Matt is one of our trusted business partners. He’s also our go-to referral whenever our clients need home or renters insurance policies. According to Matt, several providers — including Farmers — have instituted “binding restrictions” for some Oregon zip codes. These restrictions prevent customers from obtaining new home or renters policies in areas currently under threat from wildfires. Binding restrictions are standard in the industry and protect providers against insuring a structure that could be damaged or lost at any moment.

The zip codes included in these binding restrictions can change from day to day, depending on the fire’s status. While the situation is fluid, Matt mentioned that renters and homeowners living in Clackamas County would probably have a tough time obtaining new coverage. Insurers won’t lift the binding restrictions until a zip code meets three criteria:

  1. The evacuation orders are lifted.
  2. Fires no longer threaten area structures.
  3. The fire is at least 90% contained.

New Coverage Could be Hard to Find

Under those conditions, some Oregon zip codes could move out of restriction before others. Clackamas County — where the worst local fires are burning — may not emerge from restrictions until the fall rains begin in earnest. In some cases, binding restrictions could make it difficult for people living in an active wildfire policy to obtain even a new auto insurance policy.

Matt did say that individuals with active home and renters policies in place are still protected — even if they live in a fire danger zone. However, Matt said this is not the time to change policies. If you’re considering a switch, be cautious. Do your research to be sure you can find new coverage before canceling your existing policy. Unfortunately, people who need new policies don’t have many options. Matt said that every carrier handles their restrictions differently. So if you’re having trouble finding coverage, all you can do is shop around and hope to find someone willing to offer coverage.

Support for Evacuated Customers

Matt’s had several clients displaced by emergency evacuations. Some were at work when the orders came through and could not even return to their homes before evacuating. As you can imagine, this can be an incredibly disruptive and expensive process, even if your house survives the fire. With many policies — including ones offered by Farmer’s — providers will pay for additional living expenses like hotels, food, clothes, and other incidentals if the policyholder fell under Level 3 evacuation orders. Matt says Farmer’s speeds the process by making direct deposits in the policy holder’s bank accounts as soon as they open a claim. Farmer’s is also using drones to get an idea of wildfire containment levels and see if homes are in imminent danger. In some cases, they’ve confirmed that a client’s home is still okay, even when they can check for themselves.

Insurance Tips for Wildfire Season

Even though we’re still in the thick of our current wildfire crisis, it’s not too early to get your insurance in order for next year. Matt gave us a few tips to consider as you examine your insurance coverage.

Itemize Your Possessions

Matt recommends conducting a video walkthrough of your home — inside and out — to document your possessions. Pay special attention to large ticket items like art, rugs, furniture, or gun collections. Once you’ve completed your walkthrough, store the video in the cloud to make it accessible even if you lose your phone in an emergency. The more recent the videos, the better, so it’s best to do these walkthroughs regularly.

Talk with Your Agent

Matt also suggests people consult their insurance agent to ensure their coverage is adequate to cover personal property losses.

Protect Your Information

In an emergency, you may not always have time to grab important documents. Matt recommends keeping copies of insurance policies and other essential documents in the cloud, so they’re still accessible. Matt also suggests you store your agent’s office number on your phone to get help right away. Less tech-savvy people might not be comfortable using digital storage tools. However, storing documents inside a safe in your home won’t do much good if it burns. In this instance, Matt recommends keeping copies of your property list and important documents in a safety deposit box.

Install Security Cameras

There has been some concern with criminals looting abandoned. Homeowners with doorbell cameras and other surveillance tools can keep watch over their property even when they’re not home. If you’re currently evacuated, Matt recommends watching your camera and checking alerts. If you’re still at home, Matt recommends installing these cameras for use in future emergencies.

Get to Know Your Neighbors

As we’ve learned, rumors can run rampant during stressful situations. Matt says it’s a smart idea to get to know your neighbors and set up a communication network that will keep you connected and informed about what’s happening on the ground.

Of course, Matt also recommends to use your best judgment and heed the warnings of emergency officials. When in doubt, stay away. Don’t return to your home until authorities say it’s safe.

Contact Matt if You Have Other Questions

In challenging times, it helps to have qualified experts in your corner to lend a hand. If you live in Oregon or Washington and have questions about your coverage needs, Matt would be happy to talk. You can reach his office at (503) 359-4421 every Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm. The experts at Rent Portland Homes by Darla Andrew are also ready to help with your property management needs. We handle every phase of the rental process, from screening tenants to collecting rent and managing repairs. Fill out the contact page on our website to learn more.