BC Wildfire Season is Upon Us

By Zoe Wu

In British Columbia summers are known for a lot of things: markets full of farm and artisan goods; fresh berries and cherries and stone fruits; and days spent on lakes with breathtaking vistas. However, as residents know, summers in B.C. also often involve wildfires.

What is a wildfire?

The B.C. government defines a wildfire as: “An unplanned fire… occurring on forest or range lands, burning forest vegetation, grass, brush, scrub, peat lands, or a prescribed fire set under regulation which spreads beyond the area authorized for burning.”

Basically, a wildfire is any fire burning in a forest or other natural ecosystem where it shouldn’t be.

What causes a wildfire?

I once heard a firefighter declare that only two things cause wildfires: humans and lightning. In B.C., that’s pretty accurate.

In other regions, wildfires may be caused by volcanoes, or coal. And it’s possible, anywhere, for a meteor to start a fire, but the province of B.C. estimates that 40% of all wildfires are caused by human activity, like dropping cigarettes, open burning, and using of vehicles, and are preventable, and the other 60% of wildfires in B.C. are caused by lightning.

Fun (or frightening) fact: Lightning strikes the Earth’s surface 100 times per second, that’s over 3 billion strikes a year! (For more lightning facts, click here.)

According to researchers at the Canadian Forestry Service, the likelihood and severity of wildfires in Canada will increase in the coming years due to climate change.

While droughts, heat waves and other weather events that we can often attribute to climate change are major factors, wildfires are not a new phenomenon. In 1886, land clearing fires nearby got out of control and destroyed nearly all of the new city of Vancouver, and in 1950, the largest single wildfire ever recorded started in a logging slash in B.C. before spreading into Alberta and eventually destroying 1,200,000 hectares between the two provinces.

Does my insurance cover wildfires?

Generally speaking, unless you intentionally burn it down yourself, or it burns down in the course of illegal activity, fire damage to your house will be covered by your home insurance policy.

A standard home insurance policy will cover the cost to rebuild your home and your belongings lost in the fire, as well as your living expenses while you are unable to live in your home due to evacuation orders and reconstruction of the home.

Likewise, most commercial insurance policies automatically include coverage for fire damage. However, if you need to shut down your business for repairs following a fire, you will need Business Interruption coverage.

For your home, your cars and your business, you must purchase insurance before the wildfire starts burning. You will not be able to buy insurance if there is a wildfire burning anywhere near you. The same goes for floods and earthquakes. If you think there is a chance your property could be impacted by one of these perils, buy insurance right away.

What is the impact of wildfires on insurance?

Major wildfires, like floods, earthquakes, and other catastrophic events, cost insurance companies a lot of money. In 2016, the Fort McMurray wildfires saw insurers pay $3.7 billion in claims – a Canadian insurance record!

Two things tend to happen in insurance when large-scale events like this strike: premiums go up (so insurers have the funds to payout future claims), and coverage availability goes down (because the risk of extreme loss is too high).

Areas in B.C. at higher risk for wildfires may see their insurance rates increase over the next few years, but, at this point, according to a Global News report, the Insurance Bureau of Canada has not seen a change in the availability of fire coverage.

However, in places like California, where repeated wildfires devastated large portions of the state, fire insurance has become harder to get in some communities. This has also been the case for water insurance in parts of Canada that are at a high risk for flood, and similarly, for earthquake coverage here in southwestern B.C.

What can I do?

To make an insurance claim for wildfire damage, call your insurance broker right away.

If you are evacuated from your home, keep all your receipts related to living expenses (hotel and food bills, etc.), and submit them to your insurer for reimbursement.

To help prevent the 40% of B.C. wildfires caused by humans:

  • Dispose of flammable items carefully
  • Be cautious with cigarettes
  • Abide by campfire bans and burning restrictions
  • Immediately report any unattended fires you encounter
  • When fires are permitted, watch them closely, keep other flammable objects away from them, and extinguish them completely when you’re finished
  • Do not park or drive your car on dry grass

For more resources on wildfire prevention in B.C., click here.