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Frustrated White Rock Lake wildfire evacuees gather at ESS centre looking for answers

Click to play video: 'Frustration grows among White Rock Lake evacuees' Frustration grows among White Rock Lake evacuees
The White Rock Lake fire continues to burn out of control. However, what has grown faster than the flames, over the past few weeks, is the frustration, as hundreds of evacuees remain forced out of their homes. Scores of evacuees gathered at the Kelowna ESS centre frustrated by confusing communication about who is covering their expenses while they are displaced. – Aug 26, 2021

The White Rock Lake fire continues to burn out of control west of Okanagan Lake. It’s now estimated to be more than 82,000 hectares in size.

However, what has grown faster than the flames over the past few weeks is the frustration, as hundreds of evacuees remain forced out of their homes — some of them for almost an entire month now.

Read more: Two key B.C. wildfires ‘being held;’ officials optimistic more evacuation orders could lift

On Thursday, scores of evacuees gathered at the Kelowna Emergency Support Services (ESS) centre frustrated by confusing communication about who is covering their expenses while they are displaced.

Fire evacuees were looking for answers about whether the government will continue to cover their expenses while they are out of their homes.

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“They are telling us that if you have insurance then we have to put it on insurance, which is terrific for people who have insurance or whose insurance covers without damage,” said evacuee Ed Labine.

“We are talking to people and finding out that a lot of insurance policies don’t cover unless you’ve got damage.”

That’s the situation Labine is in. He needs the insurance coverage because he’s been displaced, but because he is displaced he can’t return home to get proof of damages to launch an insurance claim.

Read more: Mount Law fire spreads after winds and planned ignition

He suspects his home has likely suffered smoke damage and that he will need to replace appliances, but without proof he feels like he’s in a catch-22.

“We’ve been fighting vigorously to get in to see our properties to see if we do have damage, but we are not being allowed to do that. Although, media has been allowed to come in and see the properties, which makes no sense to any of the residents,” Labine said.

Others are wondering why, after multi-week evacuations, they are just learning in recent days of the requirement to start using home insurance.

“I can understand us being put into a situation where our insurance companies have to be brought into the process, but that needs communication,” said evacuee Mike Link.

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“For instance, I’ve been in communication with my insurance company this week dealing with my freezers and fridges. I would have been able to deal with this situation and be prepared. Instead, I have a day to get my stuff together.”

Click to play video: 'White Rock Lake fire evacuees stressed after multi-week displacement' White Rock Lake fire evacuees stressed after multi-week displacement
White Rock Lake fire evacuees stressed after multi-week displacement – Aug 25, 2021

Link said he spoke to ESS on Thursday and they gave him one more night of coverage.

“I was in contact with my insurance company for other reasons and I would have dealt with this already. I was late last night trying to contact them. I’m lucky my insurance company is going to come through for me, but I know a lot of people here that are having difficulties along that line,” Link said.

“You’ve already been through a lot, you don’t need to have to go through something like this.”

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The Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) said it’s only the first 72 hours of expenses that’s covered by the province and then people should shift to home insurance if they have it.

The EOC admits communication mistakes were made.

“There was some misinformation out there and we provided clarity to the [ESS] volunteers who are trying to be as helpful as they possibly can,” emergency program coordinator Sandra Follack said.

“Now they have clear direction that they should be going to their home insurance and we are trying to convey that in the most respectful manner.”

Officials are defending the lack of access to the evacuation area for some residents looking to start insurance claims, when media was taken on a tour.

“There is extreme fire behaviour happening daily,” said Follack.

“We allowed the homeowners that had total loss, that we can confirm, to go through to take a look. The media tour is something that is normally done to get the information out in a broader manner in a more respectful way.”

In some areas, Follack said, officials have not been able to get in to assess damages because it is not safe.

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“As soon as we know if there has been damage or no damage, we are notifying each homeowner individually. Some places we still can’t get to. It is still too dangerous,” Follack said.

Overall the province insists that if evacuees are truly in need and don’t have insurance or other sources of aid, they will continue to receive Emergency Support Services support while they are evacuated.

Read more: ‘It’s real in my books’: Lytton, B.C. left to rebuild after devastating fire amid climate crisis

“[Emergency Support Services is] intended to assist those who are evacuated who don’t have alternatives like friends or families, or house and travel insurance policies providing support during evacuations,” Emergency Management BC said in a statement.

“Those who need Emergency Support Services will receive this support as long as they remain on evacuation order (there is no 30-day limit). There is a process to ensure legitimate need and each applicant is assessed on a case-by-case basis by hardworking volunteers at the local level.”

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Read more: After weeks in motels, White Rock Lake wildfire evacuees may be allowed home after planned ignition

A representative from the province and the Insurance Bureau of Canada are expected to be at a town hall Thursday night to answer questions.

The online meeting will occur from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. online.

— with files from Jamie Tawil

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