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Member story: When wildfire disaster strikes

 

Woman looking out a window at distant fire.

One afternoon in September of 2020, First Tech member Doug Matthews sat down for lunch with his wife on a pleasant day in Stayton, Oregon. He recalled the calm weather and light breeze that afternoon, despite the wildfires burning less than 50 miles away.

Douglas and his family had moved away from city life and into a picturesque and forested community in rural Gates, Oregon. For all of the scenic beauty on display in rural Oregon, the families that call it home are also wary of all the powerful elements that can flare up in the area. That includes snow, ice, wind and wildfires. The Matthews’ were aware of the nearby fires that afternoon, but all indications were that the fire wasn’t directly threatening their area.

“Later that afternoon, we noticed a very, very light ash fall by the house. That was something that we had seen before while living in Beaverton (from the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017), so ash falling didn’t seem like that big of a deal,” Doug recalled. “As evening progressed, winds picked up from the east and we were actually more concerned about the potential wind storms and falling trees.”

That night, winds surged and knocked out power at Doug’s house. The sound of trees falling in the near distance became more frequent. Doug was starting to prepare his family to evacuate when they received a knock on the door from their neighbors.

“They said ‘we’re leaving right now, Potato Hill is on fire.’ That was about a mile away. And unlike what you see on the news sometimes—where you see a front of flames advancing—this whole thing was on fire. Top to bottom.”

As they gathered things with them to leave, Doug’s wife, Lisa, opened a closet and grabbed a safe filled with important documents like car titles, passports and jewelry. But in the rush of the moment, she left the safe behind, figuring they would be back later to grab the important documents.

“We had a basket in our closet and Lisa literally had it in her hand, but some kind of cognitive dissonance in the moment said ‘I don’t need to take this’” Doug recalled. “You just don’t think about it like that while it’s happening. We thought we’d go home after the danger passed.”

Their family evacuated quickly and safely, taking only a few key items with them. But that night and the following morning, spotty fires all over the area descended on their small neighborhood and eventually burned down several homes—including the Matthews’.

In the aftermath of the fire, First Tech Insurance Services quickly helped Doug and his family start the long rebuilding process.

“There were things in my insurance policy that I didn’t realize were covered, and I credit the First Tech insurance teams for that,” he said.

The policy had several provisions that gave Doug some extra cushion to help him get through the disaster. One provision included Loss Assessment Coverage, which is a coverage that can be added onto a homeowner’s insurance policy in order to protect those who live in a shared community and suffer a loss in a common area. He also was covered separately for the outbuildings, driveways, walkways and patios on his property. These details helped immensely when it came time to start rebuilding.

“Anybody that has home insurance should also check for loss assessment coverage--and I would have had no idea. First Tech knew from looking at deeds that we were members of certain water district, and knew to put that coverage in.”

His insurance policy’s $210,000 personal property coverage also seemed generous to Doug when he first signed it, but after the fire he found that amount simply was not enough to cover a total loss. He hopes others keep in mind what it would take to replace everything they own in case of a devastating loss.

“When you mentally go through every room of your home and count item by item what is included, it really adds up fast,” he added. “And with the appreciation of value, you just don’t think of that when adjusting insurance on your own.”

Today, the Matthews’ family is looking to the future and moving forward on construction of their new home. Since Doug purchased an additional endorsement with his homeowner’s coverage, his policy provided 150% replacement cost to rebuild the home instead of 100%. The extra 50% is meant to cover cost increases in building permits and construction fees.

Doug hopes his own experience could help another family prepare for a potential disaster—and it all starts with having the right insurance.

“If you live in a community like we did, you should really pay the extra money and be fully insured. Because if you lose everything, you will find out that what you thought was over insured--really isn’t.”

First Tech Insurance Services is here to help you protect the things that matter most to you. We are a credit union-owned, full-service independent insurance agency with coverage options for home, vehicle, life and more. Learn more about First Tech Insurance Services and how we can help you improve your coverage, or schedule some time to talk to one of our agents today.