Wildfires and floods destroy cars, so protecting documents is vital

Wildfire

In California, strong Santa Ana winds are raking wildfire across a desiccated California landscape, destroying countless acres of property and putting lives in danger. In the fire’s wake there are twisted, blackened hulks, which until recently were beloved vintage cars and trucks. Property can be replaced, but when calamity strikes and a classic car enthusiast's once-gleaming pride and joy is reduced to smoldering wreckage, it's good to have ownership documentation handy when filing an insurance claim. Without proof of ownership, it can be more difficult to lay hands on much-needed, post-disaster insurance money.

Kacy Smith, Hagerty Total Loss and Rental Specialist, says the best place to keep important documents, like a vehicle's title, is in a fireproof safe or safe deposit box.

It sounds simple, but many people consider the title as just another piece of paper—like the car's registration or insurance paperwork. Each state’s motor vehicle department handles lost or stolen titles differently; flood-damage procedures also vary.

1979 Jeep CJ-7
A 1979 Jeep CJ-7 was a total loss after the owners garage was set ablaze due to a wildfire. (Wesley Eggebrecht)

Replacing a lost title in the Golden State is straightforward—the claimant simply applies for a new one. The legal owner must fill out a duplicate title application, sign it and have it notarized, and provide a California driver's license number, valid address, and the vehicle's license plate number. There is also a fee—the amount depends upon the vehicle—but it's not a lot of money.

Smith says Hagerty monitors disasters that could affect our clients. In the case of the California wildfires, company representatives reached out to the state's department of motor vehicles for answers to questions that clients would likely ask once the dust settled, ensuring that their process was smooth in the event they suffered a loss.

"This is a small action on our part, but by doing this we are able to give everyone peach of mind in the midst of a tragic loss," Smith explains.

It has been a busy year for wildfires in western states. In many places, it was also one of the costliest. Fire has been part of the region's ecology since pre-Colombian times, but the U.S. Forest Service says fire risk is up as development stretches further into wilderness areas. If you live where wildland vegetation poses a fire risk, taking precautions to preserve important documents is a must.

The same holds true for the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, where residents have always faced the risk of flooding and wind damage from hurricanes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends storing important documents—not only vehicle titles and registration, but vital records, birth certificates, passports, financial and insurance documents, and military service identification—in a fireproof and waterproof container that can be grabbed quickly if you have to quickly leave your home.

Hagerty’s Smith says it is also important for classic car owners to make sure to insure their vehicle with proper value. With a Hagerty Guaranteed Value policy, if the agreed upon amount is set at $10,000, that’s the amount the owner will receive in the case of a covered total loss. If you’re upgrading your car, upgrade your policy, as well.

"Our clients can contact us at any time to review their policy and the value they’ve placed on their vehicle," Smith says, "A couple of extra bucks may provide peace of mind when the unexpected happens."