When Alison MacLean moved to the interior of British Columbia two years ago, she was looking for a more affordable home. But she didn’t count on fire insurance rates doubling in her little slice of Kamloops paradise.
When the documentary filmmaker went to renew her insurance policy at the end of the summer, she discovered that the price had more than doubled, going from $1,100 on her last policy to quoted rates as high as $2,300.
MacLean, 64, is one of a growing number of Canadians facing volatile home insurance rates driven by this year’s wildfire season.
Rising rates, similar to what has been happening in American fire zones, have renewed focus on the steps people can take to protect their properties from fire.
Forestry expert Lori Daniels says such measures would be more likely to be adopted if the insurance industry and the government offered incentives.
“These are no longer ‘once in a lifetime’ events in fire-prone environments,” said Daniels, a professor of forestry and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia.
BC fires among top insurance disasters
2023 has been the most destructive wildfire season in Canadian history, with fires forcing evacuations in communities across the country and more than 15 million hectares of land going up in smoke.
The fires in the Okanagan and Shuswap areas of British Columbia, which began in mid-August and lasted almost six weeks, caused more than $720 million in damage, according to figures released this week by the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC).
That puts those wildfires among the top 10 disaster insurance payouts across Canada, a list topped by the $4.3 billion paid out for the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta.
According to Craig Stewart, vice president of climate change and federal issues at IBC, fire insurance rates are currently volatile. Insurers are evaluating premiums for vulnerable communities based on existing fire protection and forest management practices.
“It’s very much a moving target right now given the extraordinary fire season we’ve had,” Stewart said.
Daniels said he worries that Canada will begin to follow the United States, where fire insurance rates have skyrocketed in parts of Colorado and California.
In the city of Paradise, California, which experienced the worst fire destruction in state history with the 2018 Camp Fire, residents are having real trouble rebuilding. “Insurance rates have tripled and quadrupled. This is becoming cost prohibitive for some households and some families,” she said.
“I’m really concerned that the trend that we’re seeing, that’s starting to emerge, is going to be a problem in Canada as well.”
The insurance industry is in “intensive” talks with Natural Resources Canada to find ways to get consumers to adopt practices that reduce wildfire risks to homes, neighborhoods and critical infrastructure, Stewart said.
Daniels said insurance companies, along with the government, should lead the charge by creating incentives such as rate discounts or subsidies to encourage people to mitigate fire risks around their properties.
Building a new structure to so-called “fire smart standards” costs about $6,000 per home, he said. However, not many owners have continued with the improvements.
Simple steps to set fire to a property
The Canadian FireSmart program began in the 1980s, following the example of similar programs in fire zones in the United States. Actively educates people on how to mitigate wildfire damage.
BC’s FireSmart Chapter, which began in 2018 with an initial investment of $60 million, launched the FireSmart Home Partner Program in 2021. BC is the only province to offer the intensive program, which involves assessments of individual properties and recommendations for specific actions . Homeowners who complete all recommended work receive a certification.
FireSmart BC has achieved a camaraderie with the BCAA insurance company, which will eventually offer discounts for certified homes.
Some of the strategies are as simple as cleaning up flammable material, keeping grass mowed and cleaning eaves, said Rachel Woodhurst, FireSmart BC program leader.
“If you have a non-combustible roof that is in good condition and if you have an immediate clear area (about five feet around your house), your house has a 90 percent chance of surviving,” Woodhurst said. .
Since the launch of the program, 2,095 BC homes have been assessed.
Nine have obtained full certification.
This year’s fire season has sparked increased interest in the program, said Conrad Breakey, a North Vancouver fire captain who conducts assessments.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in interest as fire season gets worse,” Breakey said.
‘The owners were shocked’
MacLean first tried to renew his policy in August, when a wildfire broke out 25 kilometers from Kamloops. In September, the fire was about 50 kilometers away but rates were still high
Like Daniels, he said the insurance industry and government must step up to ease the burden of these costs.
“I feel like the insurance agencies are just making up the rules as they go,” he said, “and we as homeowners are shocked when we go to renew.”