When the Carlton Complex Fire burned through 400 square miles of central Washington state last summer, just 55% of the 353 homes affected were insured. Of the homes that were insured, half were underinsured by at least 40%, according to a letter sent to President Barack Obama by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

After the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) denied requests for public assistance, many affected homeowners had to rely on federal disaster loans to repair or replace their homes and personal property.

Wildfires can happen anywhere, without warning, and though homeowners can take preventative steps, they may still experience fire damage. Because federal aid and loans are not guaranteed, all homeowners should have enough insurance to repair or rebuild in case of fire.

What do homeowners need to know about wildfires?

Wildfires can happen at anytime of year and in any region of the country.

“At this time of year California has very high fire danger, but it’s decreasing in other parts of the west,” says Philip Dennison, a professor in the geography department at the University of Utah. “You can also have very large fires in Texas and Oklahoma in the middle of the winter, so it depends on when the fire season is at its highest danger point.”

As building development expands into natural areas, homes in this “wild land urban interface” may be more susceptible to wildfires, according to FEMA. The agency says the costs of federal suppression of wildfires range from $1 billion to $2 billion each year, depending on the extent of destruction.

“We’re seeing much larger wildfires than in the past because we’ve got this accumulation of fuels in the forest due to more than a century of suppressing fires combined with ongoing drought,” says Matthew Hurteau, assistant professor of forest resources at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

In addition to wildfires becoming larger, Dennison says wildfires are becoming more common, adding that climate is the most important factor to remember. “We know that fires are getting larger and the biggest fires are getting very large, but it’s not necessarily due to fire suppressions,” he said. “It’s because of drought and warmer summers in the last decade.”

What do homeowners need to know about their insurance policies?

All homeowners insurance policies cover losses resulting from fires, including wildfires. Policy limits should be high enough to replace the home and any unattached structures, if needed. Homeowners in high-risk areas need to consider several factors before choosing a policy, including the difference between your home’s market value and how much it would cost to replace and an estimate of how much value is deducted over time. The market value won’t necessarily match the cost of replacing the home because value generally depreciates over time. You may need more coverage than the market value to cover the costs of full replacement and repairs.

Some policies offer guaranteed replacement coverage, which allows homeowners to rebuild regardless of cost. If this isn’t available, make sure to choose generous limits or extend your replacement policy coverage. Homeowners also need to keep receipts reflecting the value of personal property in case it needs to be replaced.

Policies also cover displacement costs – such as time spent at a hotel – if a homeowner cannot stay in his house after a fire. Displacement costs are often capped at 20% of a policy’s limit.

Areas with better public fire protection may have lower premium costs. A home’s proximity to emergency services, such as a fire station, can also help lower premium costs.

Homeowners may be concerned about the terms of their coverage – including how much they’ll be paid or their insurance’s reserves – following particularly bad wildfires. Loretta Worters, vice president of communications for the Insurance Information Institute, says insurers are equipped to handle disasters. “Insurance companies are in the business to pay claims,” she said. “There have been many such disasters in the past, and the insurance industry has the resources.”

How homeowners can protect their house from wildfires

Insurers may require you take certain steps to mitigate your risk of loss by fire. This means creating what is called a “defensible space” by limiting the amount of flammable materials around your home.

“Embers can blow over and land right next to your house; then it doesn’t matter what you did anywhere else because you’ll have ignition of combustibles there and a flaming exposure to your house,” says Dr. Stephen Quarles, senior scientist with Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS).

Consider the following factors to protect your home from wildfires.

What fire rating does your roof have?

The IBHS recommends using roof coverings with a Class A fire rating including asphalt fiberglass, composition shingles, concrete or clay tiles as well as steel or copper roofs.

“I would recommend to any homeowner who lives in the urban interface should not have a shake roof,” says Dennison. Shake roofs are composed of wooden shingles. “It’s very prone to catching on fire and can also produce embers and catch other homes on fire.”

Do you have openings in your home?

All openings to the attic through open eaves or vents should be covered with 1/8-inch metal screening, according to IBHS. Homes with open foundations are also susceptible to embers, so homeowners should add noncombustible skirting. In addition, homeowners need to clean gutters and chimneys periodically to prevent flammable buildup.

What’s your home made of?

Exterior walls of a home should be made of noncombustible materials, such as masonry, stucco or brick. For houses with combustible siding product, including wood or vinyl, Worters suggests keeping a 6-inch clearance between the ground and the beginning of the siding.

What kind of windows do you have?

Heat stress can cause glass to break in less than three minutes, according to IBHS. Homeowners should opt for multi-paned windows that incorporate tempered glass. It’s not just the type of windows that matter, says Quarles, it’s also what you do with them in the event of a fire.

“If a wildfire is threatening and you are planning on evacuating, you want to make sure the windows are closed, because an open window is an easy way for embers to get in,” he says.

What does your landscaping look like?

Worters says homeowners should carefully maintain plants within the defensible space. Noncombustible mulches, such as rock and gravel, as well as brick and concrete walkways, also reduce the chances of ground fire.

“It’s important for you to eliminate any way for embers to get outside of your home and ignite from a pile of needles in a gutter to vents where fire could catch under a roof,” says Dennison.

Even creating a defensible space and ensuring your house is made of noncombustible materials can’t guarantee protection from a wildfire. The only sure way to safeguard your property – and wallet – is with the right amount of insurance.