While assisting evacuated residents in May, I found myself providing emotional support along with essential insurance information to families in distress. As Canada experiences an unprecedented wildfire season, here’s what you need to know to protect your property and your well-being.
When I first heard about the wildfires on the radio, I knew my home, which is about half an hour from Tantallon, Nova Scotia, was likely out of harm’s way. But as this is a small community, I knew many people who were not so fortunate. My immediate reaction was to check on friends in that area, hoping they were able to evacuate safely. After learning that they were OK, my next call was to my colleagues at Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) to plan a response on behalf of the insurers who administer policies in the impacted area.
The insurance industry is often considered a “second responder” after a natural disaster, such as a wildfire or hurricane. On the morning of May 30, IBC set up its Community Assistance Mobile Pavilion or CAMP near impacted communities, bringing together local insurers and adjusters as well as IBC’s trained insurance professionals to help address consumer questions. The insurance representatives at our CAMP location welcomed families to discuss their claims, while IBC staff managed general insurance questions.
Neighbours and strangers alike came together to console and support each other. Many of the insurance company representatives were also from the impacted community, so they were able to provide support to their neighbours. My role was primarily to help people with insurance information, with a focus on explaining the claims process and encouraging residents to write down the most important steps. No one remembers details when they are in the midst of a disaster – how could they?
The main challenge in the very beginning was helping residents with the unknown. They didn’t know if they still had a house to go back to, let alone what insurance questions to ask. All I could do was listen to them talk through their fears; I knew that’s what they needed most in that moment of uncertainty. I listened to my community members talk about anything and everything. Many brought up concerns about the mental health impact this disaster would have on themselves and their families. As this was a particularly difficult time for children, many of the insurers brought toys and snacks to occupy toddlers who might not understand what was happening, but knew that their parents were concerned. Some even provided teddy bears to give a little comfort. At the same time, homeowners were able to find details about their coverage, start the claims process and learn more of what to expect – directly from insurers.
There were a lot of recurring questions at the Tantallon wildfire and other Nova Scotia wildfires. The conversations I had with homeowners are reflected below.
My home has been destroyed. What happens now?
I met with many people who were told the heartbreaking news that their home and belongings were totally destroyed or severely damaged after they fled the wildfire. Once that reality set in, they wanted to know how to move forward. First, I reassured residents that damage and destruction of property caused by wildfires are covered under a standard homeowner’s, tenant’s or condo-owner’s policy. That includes the structure, contents, outbuildings and additional living expenses. I saw their relief after hearing this.
These residents had to recall the contents of their home while they were taking shelter and waiting to learn more about their property. However, this critical exercise is tough to do when you have so many things to worry about. Keeping a list of your belongings in a safe place with your other important documents could help, should you find that you’re in a situation such as this.
Will my insurance pay for a place to stay and the items that my family needs right now?
I spoke with families who needed to stay in a hotel and buy things such as extra clothes. Fortunately, insurance policies typically cover these expenses, known as additional living expenses (ALE for short) when someone’s home has become unliveable after an insured loss.
It’s important to keep all of your receipts and start a list of those expenses. Keep in mind that your policy only covers additional expenses. For example, say you would normally spend $100 a week on groceries but now have to pay $500 a week because you need to eat in restaurants. That $400 difference is your ALE. There could be a limit to this coverage, so check with your insurance provider to determine the ALE limit on your particular policy.
In an event such as a wildfire, it is crucial that you discuss your specific circumstances with your insurer. ALE generally lasts for the period the evacuation order is in place, and longer for those whose homes are uninhabitable. However, you should check with your insurance representative for details of your coverage.
How do I start the claims process?
A lot of people I met said they hadn’t reported the fire to their insurance company because they weren’t sure of the damage at that point. It’s important to speak to your insurance representative as soon as possible after a natural disaster.
After you report the claim, you will speak with an adjuster who will walk you through the process. A lot of information may be provided in a short period of time, so take notes and ask the adjuster to follow up in writing (an email) as a reminder of what needs to be done. The adjuster will need to wait for the Office of the Fire Marshal to release the property before starting to assess the damage. Once that is done, the insurance adjuster will guide you through the next steps of the claims process.
Will my spoiled food be covered?
I heard this question frequently, and it’s best for residents to ask their insurance representative. When returning home, evacuees may need to throw out food that has spoiled or been exposed to smoke, heat or soot.
As with your other contents, it’s a good idea to take pictures of the spoiled food and list every item before throwing it out. Make sure you check with local authorities on the proper disposal of food.
What can I expect in the coming days, weeks and months?
I often reminded residents that the claims process can take time. The current supply-chain issues and labour shortages in the construction industry will impact the time it takes to rebuild.
You can schedule the repairs directly with a contractor of your choice or a contractor suggested by your insurer. Your insurer will likely provide a list of preferred contractors who specialize in property restoration.
If you decide to go with a different contractor, be sure to check their references and credentials – they should be licensed and/or certified, insured and reputable. Also, you should speak with your insurance adjuster first to find out how much of the estimate your insurer will pay if you are not using one of their preferred contractors. Ask the person you choose to work with to provide a written contract containing detailed work descriptions, payment terms and warranties for work completed and materials used. If the work is covered by your insurance policy, make sure the claims adjuster approves the scope and cost before the work begins. Keep communication lines open with your adjuster and remember they are working with you to help you rebuild.
If you are planning to do some of the clean-up work yourself, put your safety first as there are many hazards on a site after a wildfire. Be sure to maintain good hygiene and safety practices during clean-up efforts, and use appropriate protective gear.
Although this isn’t my first experience with CAMP and supporting families through disasters, conversations such as these are always an emotional experience for me. But it’s important to provide the facts to avoid further stress and uncertainty. I’m proud to be part of this strong community and will continue to work with residents to help them get through this difficult time. If you have any questions about your insurance or emergency preparedness, I invite you to contact me through IBC’s Consumer Information Centre at 1-844-2ask-IBC (1-844-227-5422) or email me at AtlanticCIC@ibc.ca.