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Tips to help BC fire evacuees recover losses

Wildfire burning 11 kms north of Princeton, July 9, 2017 (Photo submitted, Steve Tobias)

So far, about 37,000 people have been displaced by the wildfires

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – As firefighters and other first responders try to manage the wildfire situation in British Columbia following the state of emergency, displaced residents are being forced to take shelter in temporary accommodations throughout the central and southern interior of British Columbia. And many are worried about damage to property and possessions back at home.

So far, about 37,000 people have been displaced by the wildfires. This compares to a total of 88,000 who were displaced in the Fort McMurray, Alta., fire last year.

“The BC fires are very different from the Fort Mac fires,” explains Steve Kee, director of media and digital communications at Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC). “This is a vast area that is not as densely populated as Fort Mac so it will take time to evaluate the damage.”

But while there is still little info or indication on the scope of it regarding insurance claims, and as the situation stabilizes, questions will start to emerge. Has my house burnt down? Has smoke caused irreparable damage?

To help, here are a few key things you can do in the days ahead if you find the wildfires have had a direct impact on you.

Step 1: Get emergency cash and stay safe

Evacuees can expect emergency aid from the BC provincial government where outgoing Premier Christy Clark has promised “immediate” relief in the form of $600 for adult evacuees and $300 for children who have lost property. That cash is in the form of an electronic funds transfer or cash cards through the Red Cross and can go towards short-term relief, namely helping people pay for immediate expenses such as food and accommodation while displaced.

If you are an evacuee, you are asked to register with the Red Cross by phone at 1-800-863-6582. It will allow the Red Cross to contact you directly as more information and assistance becomes available. (The website was experiencing technical glitches, so best to avoid until further notice.) The entire effort will cost the BC government $100 million.

Help to locate the sick

Information about the whereabouts of hospital patients relocated due to the fires is available at 1-877-442-2001.

Get prescriptions, for free

If you are a BC fire evacuee and had to leave without medications, any pharmacy can help arrange to get a prescription transfer or emergency fill. Talk to a pharmacist for more information. Be ready and take any identification you have with you.

Let loved ones know you are safe

The provincial government and the Red Cross are asking that all evacuees register and continue to check-in with the Red Cross. Even if you’ve already registered with an evacuation center, they are asking evacuees to check-in again. Go online or call 1-800-863-6582. Family members and evacuees trying to reunite can also contact the Red Cross. Take any identification you have with you.

Step 2: Contact your insurance rep

For many homeowners, the biggest concern is whether or not their home is still standing. But even prolonged exposure to smoke can cause enough damage to require a full repair and remodel of a home. The good news is that most homeowners insurance policies will cover repairs and replacement of home and belongings damaged or destroyed by fire. But to get this coverage to pay for these repairs, you’ll first need to contact your insurance representative.

As soon as you contact your insurance company, you set in motion a claims process—the official task of assessing and paying for what may be catastrophic damage done to your home and belongings. Still, there is no urgency. Whether you call today, tomorrow or few weeks from now, you will still be eligible for full coverage, under your policy terms. But understand that the insurance companies can’t start a claim until they know damage has been done, explains Kee, who recommends you visit the Insurance Bureau of Canada website for up-to-the-minute BC wildfire and insurance news.

For many, though, there’s a lot of uncertainty as to who to call and when. Many homeowners fled with few belongings and even less have access to important documentation, such as their home insurance policy. To help, IBC set up a hotline. By calling the toll-free number (1-844-227-5422) or emailing (askibcwest@ibc.ca), homeowners will get help in tracking down their insurance policy.

Homeowners who already know who their insurance provider is should consider going in person to Community Assistance Mobile Pavillions (CAMPs) set up in the Kamloops region. CAMP staff will provide insurance information and advice to those affected by the fire. They will also help evacuees get started on their claims.

Residents can visit CAMP at Old Main Building of Thompson Rivers University 900 McGill Rd, Kamloops, BC V2C 0C8.

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Track your evacuation expenses

Even if you haven’t contacted your insurance provider, remember to track your expenses. Simply keep a log of all money spent as well as every receipt associated with your living expenses, while you’re displaced from your home.

This is crucial if you want to be reimbursed. That’s because many insurance policies come with additional living expenses coverage, while some companies will even cut a cheque for those stranded in evacuation centers.

Get insurance company reimbursements

However, to be reimbursed through your insurance coverage, you will need to keep receipts. “Best practice is always to keep receipts,” says IBC’s Kee. No expenses is too small—whether you end up buying coffee, a toothbrush, a restaurant meal, or renting a room. While this doesn’t mean your coverage will reimburse you for every expense you incur while displaced from your home, but what it will cover is going to have a receipt. ”Getting reimbursed will depend on the wording of your insurance policy,” says Kee. “So keep everything.”

Once the evacuation order is lifted you’ll need to return home to gauge the damage. For many residents of the areas affected, the homes will be uninhabitable. In this case, most insurance providers will continue to pay living expenses, and that includes accommodation and meals. Again, keep a record of all your expenses, and stay in frequent contact with your insurance provider. Why? Because you don’t want to purchase a big ticket item, such as a bed, only to find out later that some or all of that expense isn’t covered.

Talk to your bank

Evacuees that were still paying off mortgages before fleeing the affected regions may be surprised to learn that even if they have no home to return to, you are still responsible for making those mortgage payments.

Insurance claim coverage won’t take over mortgage payments or any other debt repayments, such as credit card balances or car loans. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get help.

Step 3: Help with mortgage payments

“If you are a homeowner financially hurt by the fire then the majority of mortgage lenders will let you defer mortgage payments or allow you to re-amortize your payments,” explains Robert McLister, an independent mortgage broker and founder of RateSpy.com. While deferred, interest-only and re-amortization adds time and interest to your overall borrowing costs, it also allows borrowers some breathing room on their monthly bills, at a time when cash flow can be a challenge.

You also have an obligation to maintain your home insurance to ensure you can rebuild, or your lender can call your mortgage. “You must also notify the lender if there’s been huge damage done to your home,” says McLister. “Otherwise, you could be in default of your mortgage.”

“And if home values start dropping, some homeowners who’ve put down only 10% or so to buy their home have to go and renegotiate a new mortgage term,” says McLister. “Homeowners could find they have an underwater mortgage—meaning you owe the lender more than your home is worth.” An underwater mortgage can happen for a variety of reasons, but the most common is when a buyer puts down a relatively small down payment when purchasing a home only to see the home’s value decline.

If you think you may end up in this position, be proactive. Talk to your lender to discuss options to help you pay for your home. If that doesn’t help, talk to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Canada Guaranty or Genworth Canada. While mortgage loan insurance doesn’t protect you (it protects the banks), Genworth, CMHC and Canada Guaranty are often quite proactive in trying to find solutions to help homeowners keep their homes, rather than defaulting.

Help with car and personal loan payments

Those dealing with a car or personal loan payment should also talk to their bank. Small business and commercial clients can also seek out help from their banks. Just go in and talk to a branch representative.

Step 4: Prepare for the claims process

Once you’ve called your insurance provider, started collecting your day-to-day living receipts and talked to your bank, the next step is to turn your attention to the insurance claim process.

And while it could be some time before anyone is allowed to return home, once you are allowed to do so the first task is to assess the damage done, as best you can. While the insurance company will still send out their own adjuster, to record and assess your claim, now is a good time to take photos or record video of the damage. You can use this photograph documentation to support your claim and document your loss.

(Keep in mind that home insurance will cover not only damage caused by fire but also smoke damage and damage caused by the wind, among other perils. To find out exactly what’s covered, talk to your insurance provider.)

Another good option, even before you return home to assess the damage, is to imagine each room in your home and then list everything you see in that room. Do this exercise room by room, keeping a list of all items you see in your mind’s eye. This list can also be added to your claim, to help the adjuster determine the final cost of your loss.

Don’t make repairs until you are given the thumbs up

Unless your insurance provider has specifically said you can, don’t move, disturb, clean or repair any part of your property. Your insurance adjuster must first assess the damage as is, before you can start the cleanup process. Keep in constant communication about when you can start the rebuilding process and don’t forget to ask if they offer discounts if you opt to pitch in and clean up the debris. Some insurance companies will credit homeowners who clean up their own sites during catastrophic events.

Finally, realize that by being prepared and proactive, your claim will be much easier to handle, both for you and your adjuster (who will be overwhelmed by the sheer number and the vast amount of loss from these wildfires). In the end, you want to get your insurance money as quickly as possible.

Step 5: Settle your claim

At some point, your insurance adjuster will offer you a settlement—the financial compensation that will be used to compensate your loss. For some, this may be a cash settlement—a lump sum that must be used to settle debts and start again. For most, it will mean rebuilding your damaged or destroyed home.

Pay your deductible

During this process, you may notice a deduction from the final sum that was offered by your insurance company as compensation for your loss. This reduction—usually $500, $1,000, or more—is your deductible. Every insurance policy comes with a deductible—the out-of-pocket portion you pay for any claim you make.

Keep in mind, though, that some insurance companies will waive your need to pay this out-of-pocket portion of the claim—eliminating this deduction from your final settlement. Typically, this is done when your claim exceeds a certain pre-set limit established by the company. Talk to your provider to see if you qualify. You may also notice that your out-of-pocket portion is smaller than you were anticipating. This could be a result of a “disappearing deductible”—an insurance company formula that eventually decreases the amount you pay until the deductible disappears entirely. “This will depend on the size of the claim and the individual policy,” says IBC’s Kee. “Check the details with your insurance representative to see if your policy includes this.”

Step 6: How long will it take?

So how long will it take for the insurance provider to settle my claim? This really depends on how severe and complex your claim is, and this is further compounded by the sheer volume of claims being filed at this time in the areas affected by the BC fires. But keep in mind that it will take time. Stay in touch with your insurance provider to find out their ongoing efforts to try and help ease the burden of waiting for your claim to be settled.

Also, be aware that the coverage you receive will be different than the coverage your father received, or your neighbour, or your friend. That’s because home insurance policies can differ dramatically based on company, type of coverage, the age of the home, the type of structure, among a number of other factors.

If you want more information, or you want to help

Anyone with concerns or questions can always contact the Red Cross at their toll-free number: 1-800-418-1111 or by visiting this page.

While donations of clothes and in-kind goods are appreciated, many aid agencies are asking Canadians who wish to help with the relief efforts to donate cash. Your cash donations go towards food, clothing, shelter and other necessities. You can text FIRES at 45678 to make a $10 donation to the Canadian Red Cross Fires Appeal.

And wireless carriers Rogers and TELUS are both waiving wireless overages for BC fire evacuees, in the form of minutes, text messages, and data.

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