Insurance claims, financial losses take toll on N.S. wildfire victims

Insurance claims, financial losses take toll on N.S. wildfire victims

Walking around the concrete foundation of their home in Upper Tantallon, N.S., Peter Walsh and his son Reilly are finally imagining what it will look like and where the rooms will be.

“It’s been a lot of stress and a lot of figuring things out as we go,” Peter Walsh said, referring to the insurance claim process that has taken up a lot of his time and energy.

Losing their home to the fire, finding somewhere to live in the meantime, while also trying to replace some of their possessions has been a huge upheaval to the family.

“It just hasn’t really felt real,” said 14-year-old Reilly Walsh, who has a 12-year-old brother and a sister, who is nine. 

Their Westwood Hills home was one of 151 lost to the wildfire that started on May 28 in the suburban communities west of downtown Halifax last year, causing an estimated $165 million in insured damage.

Since then, the family compiled a list of everything they lost to make their insurance claim, which turned out to be more than 100 pages.

“It was pretty chaotic at one point,” Walsh said. “A lot of evenings just sitting in front of the TV with my laptop, just trying to go over spreadsheets.”

‘You just have to … leave a lot of the emotion out of it’

When CBC talked to Walsh after the wildfire in July 2023, he said dealing with insurance was like taking on another job.

Since then, he said he has exchanged dozens of emails with his insurance provider and spent hours on the phone “trying to clarify things that you just don’t understand going into the process.”

One of the things he discovered was how some items are classed as non-essential in his policy and therefore are considered to have depreciated in value by as much as 90 per cent.

This depended on the age and the item, he said, and included his tools. 

It was not what he was expecting but, “You just have to kind of leave a lot of the emotion out of it,” he said.

WATCH How these Nova Scotians are recovering from the wildfires

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Tricia Murray-d’Eon, who lost her Highland Park home in nearby Hammonds Plains, N.S., is only just getting going with her rebuild.

She has also run into complications she never considered.

“City Hall didn’t have our building plans from 1996, which was when our house was built, so we had nothing to go on,” she explained.

Piecing together the plans, in part, happened by examining photos taken over the years showing elements in her home, such as flooring.

From those, they were able to do things like actually count the number of ceramic tiles in the kitchen to calculate the dimensions of rooms and windows based on those standard measurements. 

A white home is shown surrounded by trees in the sun.
Tricia Murray-d’Eon’s home is shown before the wildfire destroyed it. Photos of the home and images of rooms inside it helped piece together plans for the rebuild. (Tricia Murray-d’Eon)

However, the detail involved was “painstaking,” she said.

“There was a point that I was definitely feeling burnt-out.” 

Murray-d’Eon continues to worry about the financial implications, including a possible property tax increase when her newly built home is assessed.

That is because she said  it will be valued at a much higher rate than her original home.

Her local MLA, Ben Jessome, has taken on the case and has tabled bills in the legislature raising the concern that some people could see their property taxes double, which is what Murray-d’Eon expects.

Burn marks around the foundation of a home is shown in a photo taken after the Upper Tantallon and Hammonds Plains wildfire.
The burned foundation of Tricia Murray-d’Eon’s Highland Park home is shown after the wildfire. (Tricia Murray-d’Eon)

Jessome wants the government to make an amendment to the Assessment Act so people rebuilding after disasters are protected from sudden increases.

The province released a statement to say property owners in the direct line of wildfires receive an additional 15 per cent reduction in their assessed value and have been provided a range of financial assistance.

The way she is managing all of the pressure is by doing things bit by bit.

“It’s a massive machine,” she said. “At least if you just do it piece by piece, then it seems to make it a little easier.” 

It has been more complicated to estimate the losses from the Shelburne County wildfire that ignited on May 26 and also burned late into July, given a number of the homes that were destroyed were not insured.

The fire destroyed about 60 homes. It also had a big impact on the fishing industry, the economic driver for the area.

“There was a lot of gear lost in the fire,” said Kevin Doane, a lobster fisherman, who is also the representative for the Harbour Authority in Ingomar.

A man in blue coveralls is shown by lobster traps that were burned and mangled in the Shelburne County wildfire.
Fisherman Kevin Doane is shown by lobster traps belonging to his nephew that burned in the Shelburne County wildfire. (CBC)

Fishing gear that was stored outside was not insured, he said, resulting in fishermen losing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment when the fire hit storage areas near their homes.

Doane, who is a volunteer firefighter and helped fight the fire, estimates his own losses to be about $60,000.

He applied for financial relief through a disaster financial assistance fund the province set up in November, but is feeling discouraged he has not heard anything.

“I wish they would just give us an answer either yes or no,” he said, adding he has already spent about $14,000 on new lobster traps.

WATCH | Wildfires destroyed their homes. These Nova Scotians are rebuilding one day at a time 

Wildfires destroyed their homes. They’ve had to rebuild a day at a time

CBC News sits down with two people who lost their homes in the 2023 wildfires that burned through parts of Shelburne County and Hammonds Plains to learn more about how they’ve coped over the last year.

The province said as of May 9, it had received 41 applications to the fund and 14 have already been paid. 

“All others are with adjusters. This process takes time, and we can’t say for sure how long as each case is based on individual circumstances,” the province said in a statement.

Majority of Halifax-area claims settled

The Insurance Bureau of Canada said as of December, 80 per cent of claims from the Upper Tantallon and Hammonds Plains fire had been completed.

“That’s a good metric,” said Amanda Dean, vice-president of the bureau’s Ontario and Atlantic region. 

All insurance policies are a little different, she said, and it is not uncommon for full replacement of a home to take 18 months or longer.

“You’re dealing with a large number of homes,” she said, adding the availability of contractors is another factor, as well as securing demolition or building permits.

A contractor is shown working on the roof of a home in Upper Tantallon.
A contractor is shown working on the roof of a new home under construction in Upper Tantallon, N.S. (CBC)

“Some of the contractors were in touch with homeowners immediately. They had the blueprints, They weren’t that old and they were able to get on the job quickly,” she said.

Stress is expected in these circumstances, Dean acknowledged, and suggests those still trying to settle claims reach out to their adjuster.

If their concerns are not addressed, there is a dispute resolution process people can elect to take.

Thankfully for Peter Walsh, things are moving in the right direction, with framing now starting on his home.

“We’ve worked through a lot of the tougher times and are now moving into something that’s a little bit more promising.”