As the spring construction season approaches, builders in Fort McMurray trying to repair the destruction wreaked by last year's wildfires say inconsistent insurance practices are hampering progress and leaving homeowners short-changed.
As many as 2,000 building applications are expected to be received by the Wood Buffalo planning department in the first six months of 2017 as homeowners aim to break ground in milder weather. Restoration work on thousands of properties has been underway since last summer.
"The processes are all over the map," says Chad Jensen, chief executive of New Dawn Developments, which currently has five homes underway and aims to build more than a hundred properties in Fort McMurray in 2017. "It's frustrating for everyone involved."
The wildfire disaster is the largest-ever insured loss in Canada. Mr. Jensen says builders, contractors and homeowners are now embroiled in "claims chaos" because of an absence of industry guidelines.
"Some insurers are hiring third-party companies to complete rough drawings and specs of what was there and sending those to contractors to quote. Other insurers are telling customers to go get three quotes themselves," he says. "Everybody's following a different process. Because the framework for quoting is inconsistent, quotes are like comparing apples and oranges."
Mr. Jensen says many homeowners are "not totally aware of what they're entitled to and how to get it" and, with contractors' availability dwindling in Fort McMurray, "they're getting frustrated with the delays and unsure where to turn for help."
"When we're quoting for a job in Abasand, for example, we'll quote to replace the original cedar siding, which is expensive. Other builders are quoting for vinyl siding which is cheaper," he explains. "Homeowners don't necessarily know the difference and insurance companies are trying to keep costs down so the replacement value put forward by their adjuster may only include the cost for vinyl siding, which undervalues what policy holders are entitled to."
One homeowner who's been fighting for his claim is Norm Payne. The Abasand resident was given access to return to his smoke- and heat-damaged property in September, three months after evacuees whose homes were further from the fire were allowed to return.
"My brother put his claim in in early June and had no problem, he got everything replaced that needed replacing," Mr. Payne says. "By September, it was a very different story. I think by then [insurance companies] had realized the scale of the payout."
Mr. Payne claims his siding had melted and shrunk and his roof shingles were charred, but his adjuster disagreed.
"They said they'd replace the burned kids' trampoline, but not the siding and the shingles. Some of my neighbours, the same distance from the fire as me, are getting new siding and shingles and some aren't. It doesn't even matter if you're with the same insurer. There's just no consistency to it whatsoever."
Mr. Payne fought his case and won; his siding and shingles will be replaced this year. Now, he's waiting to hear if his rear windows, the seals of which he says have blown from the heat, will also be replaced.
In the meantime, he continues to advocate for those affected by the fire and says there needs to be "guidelines and governance of insurance companies in Canada."
Hoping to make a difference is the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) which is currently promoting it's Build Back Better programme in Fort McMurray, in partnership with the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
"Part of this project is getting builders and insurers speaking the same language and aligning their processes," SAIT researcher Rebecca Davidson says, "the other part is to educate homeowners and contractors on how to rebuild homes in a way that mitigates against future disasters like fire, flood and storm damage."
Ms. Davidson and her team spent time in Fort McMurray in November, interviewing residents about the challenges they've faced in the aftermath.
"Insurance is something that came up in every one of those conversations," she says. "A lot of people were uninsured or under-insured. Many were insured but didn't know exactly what they were covered for. We met people who had replaced roofs or upgraded basements but hadn't informed their insurance provider so they aren't covered for those losses."
Bill Adams, vice president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, agrees that consumer education around insurance policies is something that's needed.
"Too often the insurance purchase decision is made very quickly without being fully considered. Many people don't know what the extent of their coverage is and unfortunately, when a disaster strikes, they're forced to find out very quickly. We're promoting a message to homeowners to spend an hour a year speaking to their insurance adviser and ensuring they have a policy they're happy with," he says.
Mr. Adams admits the Bureau has "never faced a challenge of this scope and magnitude before," but that they're committed to "help homeowners build back better, not cheaper."
"Insurance companies are driven first and foremost by a contract with the homeowner. In that contract there should be adequate money to rebuild or restore a property. We are advising homeowners on ways to reallocate funds from their 'envelope of money' towards resiliency features," he explains. "So perhaps they forego replacing the granite work surfaces in favour of cement board siding or metal roofing."
Ms. Davidson says economics is likely to determine the extent to which resiliency features are adopted in Fort McMurray
"The Catastrophic Loss Institute did some research which found many homeowners do rebuild better after a catastrophe," she explains. "They changed from wood to asphalt shingle for example. But insurance policies often dictate cheaper materials and many homeowners in Fort McMurray aren't in a financial position to invest their own dollars to upgrade."
Getting builders on side to promote material upgrades has also been difficult, Ms. Davidson says.
"Builders often just say 'this is how we build' and it can be hard to challenge that when economics and timescales are incredibly tight."
Ms. Davidson says homeowners also need to understand what to ask for in the rebuild process.
"Most homeowners we've spoken to in Fort McMurray didn't even understand the basic premise of a vapour barrier in their home. We even had one builder ask us "so what is a fire rated roof?" which was pretty shocking. This is information that's necessary for homeowners to make good decisions about the rebuild of their property but if the builder doesn't even know, what hope is there?"
Ms. Davidson and her team began promoting the guidelines in Fort McMurray in November and will embark upon an education series in the Spring.
"Most people want to break ground by summer 2017," she says, "it's important that we reach as many people as we can, as quickly as we can."
Meanwhile, the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) are advocating that insurers factor resiliency features into the claims process. It's something they've been striving for since the launch of their Insurers Build Better Homes programme in the immediate aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire.
"Our investigation concluded that wind-driven embers were the cause of the majority of the home ignitions, not direct contact with fire or radiant heat," says Glenn McGillivray, ICLR Managing Director. "We know how to mitigate against that with building materials, vent sizes, landscaping and such. In Alberta, it's required that basements have backwater valves because they're prone to flooding. We want fire resiliency features to be a requirement for properties in areas like Fort McMurray which are prone to wildfires." Mr. McGillivray admits that a change such as this is "unlikely" to come into effect in time to make a difference to the Fort McMurray rebuild, but he's "hopeful that it will happen in the future."