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Guidance for wildfire evacuees returning home

July 24th, 2023  |  Home Insurance

The fear faced by residents escaping a wildfire is only equalled by the emotional impact of going home.

For some, there’s nothing left. For others, there’s significant damage. For those who have been forced to leave the No. 1 rule is to stay outside the evacuation zone until local authorities advise it’s safe to return.

Canada’s worst-ever wildfire season in recorded history hasn’t even reached its peak yet. At the end of June more than 20 million acres had burned and 126,000 people temporarily evacuated. Some residents were given the green light earlier in the month to go home in Atlantic Canada after evacuation orders were lifted.

As evacuees return, the Insurance Bureau of Canada is there to provide information and support.

“As residents return home, it’s important to keep safety as a first priority,” said Amanda Dean, IBC’s Atlantic vice president. “Do not enter your home until it is safe to do so, as indicated by the local authorities who will be releasing properties back to homeowners.”

Dean stressed the insurance industry is ready to help those affected by wildfires.

“We can appreciate the devastation many people are feeling,” she said in a news release. “IBC and the insurance industry are here on the ground, ready to help.”

Do’s and Don’t of re-entering

HUB International's Wildfire Resource Center offers this advice to homeowners who have been given the green light to go home:

  1. Don’t run back. Local authorities will often phase-in local re-entrance, starting with the areas least affected and naming specific return routes. Follow directions, including road closures. Avoid unmarked shortcuts – there’s usually a good reason to avoid side roads and closures.
  2. Do use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for breathing and protect your head and body when re-entering a damaged home or facility:
  • Use N95-rated protective masks to reduce exposure to ash and soot.
  • Wear safety glasses or goggles that provide wrap-around protection.
  • Dress in long-sleeved shirts, long pants and wear sturdy gloves and boots with a thick sole to prevent puncture from sharp objects. Consider head-to-toe protection for areas with significant damage.
  • Consider protective helmets or hard-hats where risk of falling debris exists.
  1. Don’t drink the water. Use safe, bottled water or water that has reached a full, rolling boil for at least one minute prior to consumption for drinking, brushing teeth, cleaning raw foods, preparing baby formulas and making ice. Wash hands with soap and water and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing more than 60 percent alcohol immediately after drying hands. Water used for bathing and washing clothes doesn’t need to be boiled.
  2. Do take good care. Know that fear, stress and anxiety will likely be heightened for many during re-entry after wildfires. Give everyone time to mourn and heal. Consider this especially for younger and older family members and co-workers. Seek counselling when necessary.
  3. Don’t return unprepared. Bring a flashlight, gloves and garbage bags. Walk around the exterior of your home or facility first, noting electrical wiring, sewage, water damage, the smell of gas or fallen debris. Find out if utilities have been reinstated before turning on your gas, water or electricity. Know that smoke and other odours can remain a long time and areas may need to be cleaned multiple times. Enter with caution!
  4. Do document everything. When it’s safe to do so, take pictures, maintain a running inventory of lost or damaged items, both inside and outside the home and keep track of your expenses and receipts to facilitate the claims process.

Keep in mind there are many dangers to watch out for after a wildfire. There are slip, trip and fall hazards from unstable structures, damaged trees and collapsing roofs to name Do not enter tight spaces. Damaged or leaking household hazardous materials such as kitchen, bathroom, garden, paint and fuel containers must be properly disposed of. Follow the guidance from your local authorities for these items as well as propane cylinders for heating or a BBQ.

Additional tips

IBC shared these additional tips and guidelines with homeowners:

  • Most home insurance policies cover fire damage, even if the fire originated from a neighbouring property, as long as the policyholder did not intentionally start it.
  • Do not use well water until it has been deemed safe by local authorities. It can be contaminated.
  • Have the electrical system checked within a couple of days of re-entry.
  • Check for gas fumes and contact the local fire department and gas company if there is an odour.
  • Assess the damage and determine if it can be cleaned up with proper precautions or if professionals should be hired. Inform your insurer immediately about any damage.
  • Discuss coverage and deductibles with an insurance representative as soon as possible.
  • Fire and related damage to refrigerators, freezers, and their contents are generally covered by insurance up to a specified amount. Before disposing of food from a freezer, create a list of contents or take photos for insurance purposes. Local officials will provide information about fridge and freezer disposal.

Regarding oil tanks, IBC advises:

  • Home insurance policies typically cover oil spills that cause damage to neighbouring properties under the liability portion of the policy.
  • Damage caused by a leaking oil tank inside the home is generally covered by most insurance policies.
  • Optional coverage may be available for fuel oil spills that occur outside and remain on the homeowner’s property. In such cases, homeowners should contact their insurer with as much information as possible.

“We encourage everyone to contact IBC’s consumer information centre … at 1–844–2ask–IBC with general insurance questions, or if you are having trouble getting in contact with your insurance representative.”

With files from Insurance Business Canada


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