NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Experts describe the wildfires in southern California as easily the most damaging and deadly in 10 years. The wildfires have claimed 15 lives and destroyed 450,000 acres of land. Some experts say that 12.5 million homes--half of the state's housing stock -- are at risk.
Your home insurance policy is your primary line of defense if disaster strikes. Here's what to if you're concerned that your neighborhood could be hit.
Tip 1: Create an inventory
Make sure you're insured for what you own by conducting a room-to-room inventory of your valuables. You can get started by checking out the home inventory guide at the Web site for the Insurance Information Network of California, www.iinc.org.
Although most policies have an automatic, albeit small, increase in coverage each year, it pays to make sure your coverage is complete.
Tip 2: Get physically fit
Remove brush from around your home and get rid of any fire ladders, which are trees with limbs that hang over your roof. Boughs will transfer flames to your roof and your house.
Tip 3: Prepare your paperwork
Have your policy and agent's name handy in case the worse happens. One of the experts we spoke with at the Insurance Information Network of California had the policy sitting on the front seat of her car in case she had to evacuate quickly.
Also prepare an evacuation plan with your family so you know how you will leave the house and where you will rendezvous whether it be at a friend's or neighbor's home.
Tip 4: Document the damage
If disaster does strike, immediately contact your insurance agent and document the damage with a video camera or still camera. Don't throw damaged goods away immediately, and don't make major repairs before you talk to your insurer.
There will be a long line of Californians waiting to get their damages assessed, so get the adjuster to your site immediately. But don't sign off on claims too fast; this is an emotional time and you don't want to inadvertently underestimate your losses.
Tip 5: Get a second opinion
If your home is a total loss or near loss, consider hiring your own adjuster to come up with an independent estimate of your losses. Although you'll spend some money upfront, it could pay off with thousands in extra dollars of compensation. Check out the Red Cross' "Disaster Recovery: A Guide to Financial Issues" at www.redcross.org.
Now that President Bush has declared that a major disaster area exists in California, federal funding will be available to people impacted. Just remember, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency will have money ready to help people, much of it will be disbursed in the form of loans, not outright grants.
For some people who can't get home insurance because they live in a high risk zone, get a Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) plan. Contact your state insurance commissioner for details.