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A wildfire burns near Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 8, 2016.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

As Alberta contends with the trail of devastation left by massive wildfires in Fort McMurray, Canadian insurers are facing what may be their greatest challenge yet. Hundreds of insurance experts – mostly from Ontario, Quebec and Alberta – have been mobilized, many landing over the weekend in Edmonton, Lac La Biche, Calgary and other hubs near Fort McMurray. Even as they waited on Monday for an evacuation order to lift, the work had begun.

Companies established temporary offices – some in specialty RVs with sleeping quarters and meeting spaces. Representatives distributed preloaded visa and debit cards and encouraged customers to save receipts from groceries and accommodations as they handed out snacks, juice boxes and colouring books to keep kids occupied in evacuation and reception centres. Meanwhile, some field claims adjusters were receiving fresh training to prepare them for the fire and smoke damage that is expected to be found to buildings, homes, cars and land.

The industry had expanded preparations for a large-scale catastrophe such as this after taking lessons from Alberta's last two major disasters.

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"These are the moments of truth where insurers need to deliver on the promise," said Neil Skelding, chief executive officer of RBC Insurance. "Our sales advisers have opened up their homes and we've taken in some of the families. … We had an adviser that actually went to the pharmacy to get an insulin prescription replacement because somebody had left it at home. If we can help in any way, we're helping."

Canada is grappling with increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters such as floods, hail and unusual weather amid a global battle with climate change. The wildfires that have ravaged Fort McMurray, shuttered businesses and displaced about 88,000 people will be a major test of insurers' preparedness in what is likely the costliest disaster ever in this country. Early estimates indicate damages could climb to $5-billion or higher, according to a report by Moody's Investor Services Inc. on Monday.

The insurers' approach has evolved significantly over the past few years. Alberta's Slave Lake wildfire disaster in 2011 and major flooding in 2013 pushed many companies to improve their rapid-response and recovery programs. In the case of the floods, a lack of clarity over coverage caused mass frustration among homeowners with destroyed or badly damaged property.

Two and a half years ago, TD Insurance – one of the largest personal-property insurance companies in the region – developed a catastrophic-event playbook. The company also created and then increased the size of an internal response team – a group dedicated to handling major disaster claims.

"We know that, with climate change and the increased frequency of severe weather, that we are going to have more of this. So it is about having a robust playbook that allows us to be very pro-active and timely," said Craig Richardson, vice-president of claims operations at TD Insurance. He said TD has 30 people helping on the ground and close to 500 staff supporting the area's customers remotely.

Both TD and RBC have rolled out mobile-response vehicles that can move where customers need help – particularly once residents are allowed to return to see their homes.

"We've equipped our mobile advisers with RVs because you're not really sure where you're going to be able to stay. That's something we've learned from experience," RBC's Mr. Skelding said. "They can go to a location, set up and they're able to stay on site and help as many people as possible.

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"I can't understate the importance of being on the ground in place as individuals walk into that facility, and providing them with some comfort and understanding, and some money to get the basics, the essentials," he added.

There was scarcely anyone at the Northlands evacuation centre in Edmonton when Chris Weber, a vice-president at Economical Insurance, arrived on Friday morning. By the end of the day, thousands had filed in and many had dispersed to other parts of the province. Making sure customers could get cash quickly was a key objective. "I dealt with a couple about an hour ago. They stopped in, they reported the claims, we cut them a cheque and they were heading down to Red Deer," he said.

Meanwhile, companies are calculating how much these aid efforts will cost them. Intact Financial Corp., the country's largest property and casualty insurer, disclosed that it expects costs to range from $1.00 to $1.20 a share, or as much as $170-million after taxes and the company's reinsurance program are factored in.

"The devastation brought on by the wildfires is unprecedented," said Intact CEO Charles Brindamour in a statement. The Toronto-based company has more than 1,000 claims employees working on assisting customers that have lost their homes, cars and businesses to the fire.

Intact said it formed its loss estimates using satellite imagery and exposure geocoding technology, which matches descriptions of places to maps.

Once Fort McMurray is cleared for re-entry, the next phase of the insurers' work will begin as they use tablets, apps and other specialized technology to assess and input data about what has been lost. In the next couple of years, Alberta will likely face what the insurance industry calls "hard" market conditions – a cycle characterized by increased insurance premiums, tougher underwriting criteria and reduced competition among insurers for business.

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"It's a bit of a sprint at the beginning, and then it turns into a bit of a marathon," said Paul MacDonald, senior vice-president of claims at RSA Canada. "People are quite panicked right now and there's adrenaline running. But having gone through these types of scenarios before, it does tend to be a bit of a drawn-out process."

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