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Business Commentary In Fort McMurray, let’s build resilience, rather than a repeat disaster

Glenn McGillivray is managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.

With the Fort McMurray wildfire, Canada has hit the big time.

The size of the event and the amount of insured damage caused may put it up there with some of the large flood and moderate hurricane and earthquake losses in the international re-insurance industry's top 50 costliest natural catastrophes. The event will likely be greater than the current costliest and second costliest insured losses in Canadian history combined: the 2013 Alberta flood and the 1998 Eastern Canada ice storm. Indeed, Fort McMurray appears certain to go down as the costliest wildfire loss in world insurance history.

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When large disasters strike, in Canada and elsewhere, the propensity is to put everything back as close to the way it was as quickly as possible. Everyone appears to want a return to normalcy, and most of the main stakeholders appear to be complicit in the decisions that lead to this rush to rebuild "as was" – provincial and local governments, insurers and property owners among them.

The end result is that individual homes, neighbourhoods and communities rebuilt after a loss event are just as vulnerable as they were prior to it, if not more so. But this cycle of build-insure-lose-rebuild has to end, and the recovery process that will take place in Fort McMurray in the months and years ahead is the perfect time to put a new paradigm in place.

Essentially, none of what we have to do is theoretical. We have the knowledge to build resilience into communities, neighbourhoods and individual homes, against all major perils, including wind, hail, basement flooding and wildfire. What we need is the will. Everyone with a stake appears to have a reason why we can't or shouldn't rebuild better.

When talking about resiliency, it's important to understand and address the risk that exists both in the broader community or region (whether we are talking about an earthquake fault line, a coastline, the side of a mountain, a floodplain or the boreal forest) as well as the risk that is contained in particular neighbourhoods. But it is also important to talk about the presence of risk factors on individual private properties and the much-needed management of this risk.

When thinking about what resiliency may look like for Fort McMurray going forward, it is important to have a discussion about land and fuels management in the forest, and about risk-based urban planning in the city. But it is also very important to talk about risk factors on individual private lots.

On this last point, we find ourselves asking the question of Fort McMurray: Why were there stands of unburned houses left in areas that were otherwise decimated by fire? While the answer could conceivably lie with factors such as a change in wind direction, heroic firefighting efforts and luck, much research in this area indicates it is usually a feature or features of the lot and of the structure on it that forces the difference between a home surviving an event or being lost.

It is common after natural catastrophes to hear (particularly from politicians) that the event was "so large" that nothing could have been done to stop it, that even if mitigation was in place, it wouldn't have made a difference. This was a common theme in the discourse after the 2013 Alberta flood.

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Fort McMurray is no different in this regard, as we hear that the fire (temperatures of which rivalled those in a blast furnace) was so intense that fire breaks were rendered useless as flames skipped over the Athabasca River (one kilometre wide at the point where it jumped) and that embers were blowing five to 10 kilometres ahead of the fire front, lighting structures far away from the actual flames.

While it's true that the fire in Fort McMurray was incredibly intense (it wasn't nicknamed the Beast for nothing), the behaviour of a fire in the forest is quite different than the impact a fire can have if it gets into town.

To get some definitive answers as to why some homes survived in areas where most didn't, the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction obtained official authorization to allow a noted wildfire researcher behind police cordons to investigate the resilience to wildfire of certain Fort McMurray homes.

Alan Westhaver looked at a cross-section of about 200 homes in varied situations and found clear evidence that particular features of individual lot landscaping (including choice and placement of plants and maintenance of trees and vegetation), homes (choice of building materials and style) and combustible material on hand (equipment, construction materials, propane tanks, fences, in storage) made the difference between homes surviving the ember storm or not.

Mr. Westhaver's findings will be used to catalogue the key features of homes and properties that can reduce the risk of fire taking hold, allowing building-code officials, home builders, insurers, homeowners and others to ensure that these features are included in rebuilds and new builds and in the maintenance practices of existing homes going forward.

The unfortunate loss in Fort McMurray offers up a great opportunity for stakeholders to work with the provincial government, the federal government, insurers and others to prevent a repeat of this disaster in the decades ahead.

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As has been noted many times over, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Now is the time to break the cycle of loss in Canada.

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