What to do after the fire?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 1, 2006

Garret Felder, staff intern

Historically, when a house catches on fire, firefighters arrive and put it out. Nowadays, firefighters provide information to help families after the fire. Albert Lea Fire Chief Paul Stieler calls it the &8220;after-fire packet.&8221;

&8220;The one thing about a fire is that people are kind of traumatized,&8221; Stieler said. &8220;So it’s a bad time to be making some of these really tough decisions. So this is information to help them through this time.&8221;

The Albert Lea Fire Department added new information about hiring residential contractors to its packet. The updated version was released last week.

The packet is a small package of information the fire investigator hands to a homeowner after a residential fire. The original packet, which has been offered for over 10 years, includes information about what to do during the first 24 hours after a fire, what steps to take with contacting the insurance company, how to replace documents and records and ways to salvage or clean up personal belongings. The original packet includes some of the standard procedures the fire department performs during a fire that are frequently asked about by homeowners.

With the new addition, the packet will now contain information about hiring a residential contractor for rebuilding a home. Some of the topics included are: What information a homeowner should put in a builder’s contract, how homeowners can protect themselves from unfair mechanic’s liens (contractors trying to take a homeowner’s property from them for not paying), and what is included in Minnesota’s statutory warranty that protects homeowners from builders and flawed work.

&8220;The information packet is designed to arm and educate a person who has been through a fire,&8221; said Albert Lea City Councilman George Marin. &8220;I’ve had two fires in my ward, and I wanted the city to be proactive and create a checklist for victims of fires.&8221;

Realizing the problem’s importance, Marin said he actually worked with one of his constituents, Miguel Cantu, and discussed some of the after-fire problems that needed to be addressed. Marin said the packet is still &8220;at work&8221; but would even like to see the city hold a complaint file for fire victims that would allow them to express their concerns about certain restoration contractors.

&8220;We need to arm our constituents with the proper information,&8221; Marin said, &8220;so they know how to pick a good contractor after a fire.&8221;

The new addition doesn’t satisfy everyone. Although he helped the councilman with ideas, Cantu said that the relatively small addition, which is originally from Minnesota’s Department of Commerce, is not enough for helping residential fire victims understand all the tasks required

after a disaster.

&8220;I just want something to inform people so when they go get that permit to get their house fixed that everything is in proper order,&8221; Cantu said. &8220;What it is saying is all right, but the common person looks at this and doesn’t understand.&8221;

On April 17, 2004, Cantu and his family became residential fire victims. Cantu said he did not receive a packet of any kind from the fire department when he asked for one.

After Cantu’s misfortune and the reconstruction of his home began, he said his contractor filed a &8220;mechanic’s lien&8221; against Cantu because he would not pay the bill. At that time, Cantu said he had no idea what a &8220;mechanic’s lien&8221; was. Cantu said he wouldn’t pay because the original work was flawed and he would not pay until the job was finished. But with the new additional packet, residential fire victims will have a better idea of what a lien is and how long a contractor has to file one.

But despite the inclusion of contractor information to the after-fire packet, Cantu said he still has some of his own suggestions to make it better.

&8220;It should be a file that would let people know what an inspection record is. It should include a building permit application with phone numbers, and it should explain how to write it all up,&8221; Cantu said. The fire department &8220;could add all this to it and I wouldn’t mind, but I would like to make sure that all of this gets in there.&8221;

Although Cantu awaits his October court date with the restoration contractor, he said, he hopes the introduction of the additional packet will help other residential fire victims like him and prevent the troubles he has endured.