Beaumont Tashjian Law Blog

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Fire Season Is (Sadly) Upon Us: How Should You Prepare?

Wildfires are currently starting to rage throughout the state, forcing thousands to evacuate their homes. In fact, as of the date of this publication and only since August 15th, over a million acres have been burned in Northern California. [1] 

Of course, Southern California and its tens of thousands of community associations are far too familiar with the effects of Mother Nature. The last couple of years alone have resulted in millions of dollars in property damage due to these recurring natural disasters. Given California’s history with wildfires, the ongoing fires in Northern California, and the impending heat wave here, it is critical that community association leaders take preventative and anticipatory actions in order to mitigate risk and prepare:

  1. Evacuation Plan

    With wildfires being a continuing danger for our neighborhoods, it is essential that boards and managers be prepared for when one strikes. First, residents should be reminded of this ongoing risk through newsletters or otherwise, and be encouraged to prepare emergency kits that are easily accessible and stored in a safe place. Such kits should include ten (10) days’ worth of necessities, such as water and non-perishable foods. A first aid kit should also be included, as well as any personal hygiene items.

    Board and managers should also be proactive in developing a disaster preparedness and evacuation plan. The details of this plan will surely vary, depending on location, the type of community, its layout and common area features, and number of residents. For example, a high-rise condominium association may require a more comprehensive evacuation plan, compared to that of a single family planned development. Here are some things to consider including in such a plan:

    • Include a site plan with evacuation routes, or other information that explains how a members are to evaluate evacuating the building, based on the circumstances;
    • Include a designated meeting space for residents to meet following a disaster (if applicable);
    • Consider whether a common area clubhouse or other facility is suitable for temporary “command center” or meeting place after a fire, to coordinate a response and address residents’ concerns;
    • Include management contact information, as well as contact information for any individual who is responsible for coordinating recovery efforts or making decisions on behalf of the association following the event; and
    • Include locations of the nearest shelters.

      For any evacuation plan, boards should consult with experts who are experienced in developing such plans, based on the particularities of the community. The board may also want to engage with members of the community who have experience in the field as well.

  2. Preemptive Reminders and Mitigation

    Boards should also determine any areas of risk within the community which might exacerbate the potential damage caused by fire. As with any violations of the governing documents or applicable laws, boards should be doing their due diligence and investigating any potential risks. Are there any barbecue grills, plant materials, lighting fixtures, etc., which might pose a risk? What authority does the board have under the governing documents and Fire Code (or other applicable health/safety laws) to require removal of these items? Boards should contact legal counsel to confirm same.

    For example, a resident may be asked to remove flammable plant materials installed upon the exterior of a lot or balcony. In the event of a new request for exterior landscaping or other installations, given the potential for risk during the fire season, the board should evaluate same with an eye towards mitigation. This means taking a stricter approach in approving such requests during this time.

    Boards may also want to consider implementing policies for fire prevention. A good policy will outline the risks associated with hoarding personal items and storage of flammable materials, and prohibit same, pursuant to a reasonable fine schedule. Said policy may also identify what plant materials may be stored or planted upon a unit or lot.

    Community education is key for everyone’s peace of mind. Throughout the year, boards should distribute critical information to the members of the community. Whether or not the community is located in a high-risk area, fire prevention tips should be disseminated. These tips will encompass owners’ maintenance and repair responsibilities as they pertain to electrical equipment, fireplaces, cooking equipment and fixtures, space heaters, etc. It is also vital to include reminders as to owners’ insurance obligations, as discussed in further detail below.

    Finally, board members should be able to confirm that the budget/finances of the association will be able to satisfy disaster expenses. This may include funding pre-disaster supplies/equipment, removal of debris from the community, demolition, and of course, both insurance deductibles and repairs for uninsured losses, to the extent applicable. 

  3. Insurance

    It is incumbent upon boards that they analyze the scope of their insurance coverage, in coordination with legal counsel and their insurance carrier. In particular, boards need to confirm whether or not the association’s insurance policy covers the “walls in” or is based upon only those items identified as association responsibility under the governing documents (i.e., the CC&Rs). Once confirmed, this should be clearly communicated to the members. The last thing the board wants after a catastrophic fire event is to be embroiled in a coverage dispute, especially with concerned owners expecting coverage under the association’s policy, where none is to be found. Consistent communication is not only encouraged, but necessary.

    The board should also evaluate the premiums under the policy. For example, the initial draw of lower deductibles (and thus, lower costs passed onto the owners) may be negated by the advantages of higher deductibles, which may include better coverage and less “nickel and diming” on claims. As stated above, the deductible should be in line with the association’s budget and the unique facets of the community requiring coverage.

    Note as well that, as part of its mitigation measures, the board should identify vendors and contractors who are experienced, licensed and insured to handle debris clearance, rebuilding and repairs associated with fire damage. An experienced insurance agent should be familiar with such vendors whose work will be covered under the association’s policy. An experienced agent should also be familiar with the community association laws, understand the complexity of the “insurable interest,” know what endorsements/provisions must be included to properly insure the association, and know what “additional insureds” to include as well.

  4. Post-Fire Preparedness

If your community unfortunately falls victim to Mother Nature, the board should be prepared to expeditiously submit a claim to the association’s insurance carrier. The board should also establish a point person who will work with insurance to inspect the properties for safety and habitability. Clear protocols should also be established that outline a system of communication between owners and the board/management, following a wildfire.

Ultimately, it is essential that boards and managers work with experienced personnel who can help implement the foregoing disaster preparedness initiatives. In light of the unique challenges that 2020 has given us, community association leaders should immediately take proactive steps to mitigate the risk of further loss or unexpected expense. Implementing the foregoing strategies with the assistance of legal counsel and other qualified experts is the first critical step!

 




[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/24/us/california-fires.html.




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