The high costs of wildfires in 2023: For homeowners the struggles carry on for months

Seven months after a wildfire left a charred, 1,000-hectare scar on the western suburbs of Halifax, less visible damage persists in the lives of those who lost their homes to the flames.

Lindsay Law said the financial and emotional costs continue in ways she and her husband, Jacob Haybecker, never imagined before their home was destroyed on the evening of May 28, as thousands of people were evacuated from the area.

The 34-year-old nurse said insurance is paying for the cost of building a new home, but there are gaps in coverage the average Canadian homeowner might not be aware they could face.

“It felt like things were going fine and then we got to the point when we realized there was oil damage in the soil,” she recalled in a recent interview.

“We had to pay $10,000 out of our pocket, and we were only given one day to pay this. We were told the amount could triple if we waited a few days because there was a rainstorm coming,” she said about the concern oil would leak into the home’s foundation.

“That came out of (our) savings. We’re just getting going in life, and that was difficult,” Law said.

As well, the couple’s insurance company factored in the depreciation of their assets in its offer to cover the costs of the lost contents of their home. “We don’t think we’re being offered even half what we calculate our possessions will cost to replace,” she said.

The challenges faced by Law have played out in hundreds of Canadian households this year, after wildfires consumed an area roughly a quarter of the size of Manitoba, and forced about 200,000 from their homes. British Columbia suffered its worst wildfire season on record, with about 400 homes destroyed and more than 2.8 million hectares burned.

Diane Smith-Jardine, who lost her home in the same Halifax subdivision, said the only thing retrieved from the fire was an urn containing her husband’s cremated remains. Like Law, she faced costs for environmental remediation of the property. “I had a fibreglass oil tank on my property and it actually blew up,” she said.

Smith-Jardine said her insurers have told her the cost to remove the oil would be deducted from the payout on her possessions. “As of last week the remediation cost had reached $160,000, with the possibility the figure could grow, she said.

And there are other expenses, she said during a recent interview.

“You still have to pay (insurance) premiums even though there’s nothing there,” she said, estimating they cost about $300 monthly. In addition, it was only in September that the city adjusted their property taxes to account for the fact their land no longer had a home on it.

From May 28 to June 4, wildfires in the Halifax area alone were estimated to have caused more than $165 million in insured damage, according to initial estimates from the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

There’s also wider costs to the provincial government. A spokeswoman for the provincial Department of Natural Resources estimated the province spent $8.7 million for varying expenses associated with firefighting efforts, including $1.8 million in overtime for staff, and $5.4 million for aircraft and firefighters from out of province.

There is also the mental health toll.

Law said she has vivid memories of the evening when a neighbour began honking their car horn, urging her to flee as the fire rushed up a nearby slope. As she drove through the smoke with her dog, passport and a few clothes, a car exiting a driveway backed into her vehicle.

In the months that followed, Law said she was diagnosed with PTSD and had to take six weeks off work, leaving her with less income than she was used to because she missed the extra work shifts she normally would take.

“It’s stressful when things come up and you’re reminded of the events. Yesterday a ready alert came over for a missing man and it triggered the memories. I never realized that would happen,” she said.

Smith-Jardine — who is living with her son — said she struggles emotionally sometimes. “There’s days I don’t want to get out of bed and I just don’t want to face this whole house (rebuilding) thing,” she said.

Simon Sherry, a clinical psychologist in Halifax, said housing loss affects families’ sense of safety and security. “If you think about a house, it’s a place of security, predictability and safety. When a fire happens it’s a threat to financial and psychological security and the two intertwine.”

He said while some victims of wildfires will bounce back after several months, “a subset of those impacted will be disturbed by this type of loss for the remainder of their life.”

Blair Feltmate, director of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, said in an email that homeowners in areas near forests should meet with their insurance brokers before a crisis occurs, and determine what is — and isn’t — covered in the event of a fire.

In a recently released study, the centre also called on homeowners and governments to undertake numerous preventive measures, including homeowners cutting down trees within 10 metres of their homes and governments creating firebreaks around communities at risk.

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