Recovering from the British Columbia wildfires

July 25, 2017

(Vancouver, BC): As evacuation orders are progressively lifted, Square One customers and other affected residents will return home to assess any damage and begin the process of recovery. Provided below is some information on what to expect when you get there. Also provided are some tips on how to minimize risk to you and your property.

What should I do first?

Most importantly, be careful. Be cautious when returning to your home in order to keep yourself and your family safe:

  • Look out for downed trees, power lines, sharp debris, slick surfaces and other hazards that could injure you. If you return home with pets, don’t let them come into contact with contaminated areas that could be toxic, or debris that could injure them.
  • Don’t turn on any electrical systems until your home has been checked for safety by your utility provider. Even if your home was not directly damaged by fire, radiant heat can damage electrical systems.
  • Check your home carefully for any hidden embers, smouldering fires, or pools of trapped water or chemical retardant from firefighting efforts. Sparks and embers can linger on rooftops and gather in corners and around chimneys and architectural features. If you find any embers, wet them down.
  • Clear ash, soot and debris from your home’s exterior gutters, downspouts and drains. Rainfall can quickly turn this ash into thick sludge, blocking drains and causing severe water and mud damage both inside and outside your home.
  • Document the condition of your home and personal property and take photos as you go, inside and out. This will be helpful to you when proceeding with insurance claims and when applying for other forms of aid.

My home still looks okay. What should I do inside?

You may not be out of the woods just yet. Several important steps should be taken to prevent unexpected damage or injury from occurring:

  • Before you activate any electronics, appliances or light switches, check your home thoroughly for the smell of gas. If you detect it, contact your gas provider right away and open the doors and windows.
  • Check your attic for sparks and embers daily, for several days. Gaps in your attic vents can allow them to enter your home unnoticed and linger for days, re-igniting without warning.
  • During wildfires, smoke and ash easily infiltrate heating systems. If the blower turns on, those particulates can contaminate and damage your entire home and all of your belongings. Make sure your central air stays off until you’ve been able to ensure the ducts are free and clear of damaging particulates – including the outside ducts that supply your utility room with fresh air.
  • If your power was interrupted, the contents of your fridge and freezer may have thawed and begun to decompose. If this is the case, don’t try to salvage the food, freezer or fridge – the food will already have gone bad, and the appliance will be badly contaminated. Consider duct taping the appliance shut and moving it to a secure spot outside of your home. Most insurance policies cover food lost due to a power interruption, and your insurance provider can confirm how much coverage is available to you to replace the food and the appliances it was stored in.
  • Wild animals may have entered your home in an attempt to escape the fire. Call for help if you encounter any injured animals, or animals that are reluctant to leave the premises.

Now that you’re back, you should also do what you can to reasonably protect your home from further damage. Necessary supplies, like plastic sheeting and tape, will be covered as part of your home insurance claim. Keep your receipts, so that you can forward them to your adjuster when requested.

Be wary of contractors who claim to have your insurance provider’s permission to work on your home. Square One will never authorize a third party to work on your home without your knowledge. To ensure work is covered, avoid hiring contractors for any major or nonessential work without first speaking with your adjuster. Be extra cautious if a contractor attempts to pressure or scare you into hiring them “right away” – your adjuster can guide you through the ordinary process of assessing damage thoroughly and carefully, to help you reach the best possible outcome.

My home is gone. How do I deal with the wreckage?

  • Look out for white ash, which often forms when hot coals are still burning in unseen depressions below the surface.
  • Be careful around trees, fences and other structures that show signs of damage. Their strength may have been compromised, allowing them to fall or collapse with no warning.
  • We strongly recommend that you avoid looking through debris, but if you must do so, put on a mask to avoid breathing harmful particulates and ash. Use heavy gloves and boots to avoid injury from nails, broken glass and melted plastic.
  • If you recover a household safe, make sure it is completely cold before you try to open it. Safes remain hot much longer than other household items, and their contents can spontaneously combust if exposed to fresh air before they’ve cooled down.

Should I start throwing stuff out?

Try to avoid unnecessarily disposing of damaged items, especially items that you haven’t yet documented with photos. Part of the home insurance claims process is building a summary of everything that was damaged, in order to determine how much money needs to be paid to replace it. Your insurance provider won’t be able to pay for property that’s been thrown away without adequate evidence of damage.

Whenever possible, we recommend that you wait for the municipality or your contractor to remove debris, instead of attempting to do so yourself. Most home insurance policies already include coverage for the cost of debris removal. If you’re not sure how much coverage your policy provides, ask your adjuster to confirm this for you.

If you have to dispose of something for safety or sanitary reasons, take clear photos of it first in support of your claim.

Can my home insurance provider refuse to pay for any costs incurred before I call them to open a claim?

This is absolutely untrue. Your first priority is always your own safety and the safety of your family. Your insurance provider will pay covered claims from the very beginning of the incident, even if you weren’t able to call them right away. BC law allows you to file a home insurance claim up to two years from the date of loss, but we recommend that you contact your home insurance provider at your first opportunity. Starting your claim early allows you to submit the best possible information as it arises, instead of trying to remember details and recreate your steps after the fact.

To open a claim, call your insurance provider; their claims number can be found in your policy package. Square One customers can report claims by using their online accounts, or by calling 1.855.331.6933 and pressing 2 when prompted. When opening your claim, your insurance provider will set aside resources to assist you and an adjuster will be assigned to explain the process and help you work through it.

I still have questions. Who can I talk to?

For assistance with your claim, your first and best point of contact will be your claims adjuster. This is the person assigned to work directly with you, to quantify your loss and help you to build a claim to be paid by your insurance provider.

You can also reach out to local emergency authorities, who will have clear safety and sanitary precautions in place. A good online source of information for those affected by the wildfires is the returning home section of the BC Government’s website.