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Wildfires have lit up home insurance costs. So what’s needed to spark an interest in fireproofing?

Spiking insurance rates, similar to what has been happening in American fire zones, have renewed a focus on steps people can take to fireproof their properties. Some say incentives from government and the insurance industry could boost uptake.

Incentives urged to boost uptake of programs aimed at mitigating property damage

A wildfire burns across a lake.

When Alison MacLean moved to the Interior of B.C. two years ago she was looking for a more affordable home. But she didn't bank on her fire insurance rates doubling on her little piece of Kamloops paradise.

When the documentary-maker went to renew her insurance policy in late summer, she found the price had more than doubled, going from $1,100 on her last policy to quoted rates that reached 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.

The spiking rates, similar to what has been happening in American fire zones, have renewed a focus on steps that people can take to fireproof their properties.

Forestry expert Lori Daniels says those steps are more likely to happen if there were incentives offered by the insurance industry and government.

"These are no longer 'once in a lifetime' events in fire-prone environments," said Daniels, a forest and conservation sciences professor at the University of British Columbia.

B.C. 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 B.C.'s Okanagan and Shuswap areas, which started in mid-August and raged for 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 insurance payouts for disasters across Canada, a list that is led by the $4.3 billion paid out for the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta.

According to Craig Stewart, IBC's vice-president of climate change and federal issues, fire insurance rates are currently volatile. Insurers are assessing 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 that we've had," Stewart said.

Daniels said she is concerned that Canada will begin to mirror the U.S. where fire insurance rates have exploded in parts of Colorado and California.

In the town of Paradise, Calif., which experienced the worst fire destruction in state history with 2018's Camp Fire, residents are having real trouble rebuilding. "Insurance rates have tripled and quadrupled. This becomes cost prohibitive for some households and some families," she said.

"I'm really worried that the trend that we're seeing, that it's beginning to pop up, is an issue in Canada as well."

Incentives needed

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, neighbourhoods and critical infrastructure, said Stewart.

Daniels said insurance companies, along with government, should lead the charge by creating incentives like rate discounts or grants to encourage people to mitigate fire risks around their property.

Building a new structure to so-called "fire smart standards" costs about $6,000 per house, she said. However, not many homeowners have pursued the improvements.

Simple steps to fireproof a property

The Canadian FireSmart program began in the 1980s, following the lead of similar programs in U.S. fire zones. It actively educates people on how to mitigate wildfire damage.

B.C.'s FireSmart chapter, started in 2018 with an initial investment of $60 million, launched FireSmart's Home Partner Program in 2021. B.C. is the only province to offer the intensive program, which involves assessments of individual properties and recommendations for specific actions. Property owners who complete all the recommended work receive a certification.

FireSmart B.C. has struck a partnership with the insurance company BCAA, which will eventually offer discounts for certified homes.

Some of the strategies are as simple as clearing flammable material, keeping the grass cut and cleaning the eaves, said Rachel Woodhurst, program lead of FireSmart B.C.

"If you have a non-combustible roof that is in good condition and if you have a clear immediate zone — about one-and-a-half metres around your house — your house has a 90 per cent chance of survival," Woodhurst said.

Since the program launched, 2,095 B.C. homes have been assessed.

Nine have been fully certified.

This year's fire season has sparked an increased interest in the program, said Conrad Breakey, a North Vancouver fire captain who conducts assessments.

"We've definitely seen an uptick in interest when the fire season gets pretty bad," Breakey said.

'Homeowners left in shock'

MacLean first tried to renew her policy in August when a wildfire was within 25 kilometres of Kamloops. In September, the fire was about 50 kilometres away but the rates were still high

Like Daniels, she said the insurance industry and government need to step up to ease the burden of these costs.

"I feel that the insurance agencies are just making up the rules as they go," she said, "and we as homeowners are left in shock when we go to renew."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award. Got a tip? Yvette.Brend@cbc.ca

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