Canadian Underwriter

When the smoke clears

November 21, 2016   by Gloria Cilliers

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It’s been six months since the devastating wildfires in and around Fort McMurray, Alta. And, according to the man on the ground for Canada’s largest independent disaster restoration services provider, Fort Mac looks (almost) as good as new.

The catastrophe, which caused nearly $3.6 billion in insured losses from over 50,000 claims, also saw 80,000 people displaced, about 2,400 homes and buildings burnt to the ground and hundreds of buildings damaged or left uninhabitable.

According to Jim Mandeville, senior project manager: Large Loss North America at FirstOnSite Restoration, the vast majority of demolitions have been completed, and the majority of buildings with partial or smoke damage have been restored and are being reoccupied.

“Greenery has returned really fast and the town is hustling and bustling again, just like before the fire. With the exception of some surrounding neighbourhoods that were heavily affected, it’s hard to tell that there was a major fire there,” Mandeville says.

FirstOnSite was one of the earliest restoration providers on scene in Fort Mac, having previously dealt with the 2011 Slave Lake wildfires, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the 2013 Alberta floods.

“In total we assisted over 100 businesses and 800 homeowners with the restoration process in Fort McMurray.”

Assisted first response

Technologies like cloud-based building management systems greatly assisted in the first response process, says Mandeville, which is something that wasn’t previously at their disposal.

“These systems allowed for more detailed contingency plans to be put in place and faster reoccupation once the evacuation was lifted – technology that wasn’t available until a few years ago. During the 2013 floods, only one client had a system like this in place.”

Faster internet speeds, unlimited bandwidth and improved connectivity also made it easier for first responders to send pictures to insurers in real-time, right from the scene. “Five years ago, with Slave Lake, I would have needed to wait until I get back to our camp to send photos to an estimator.”

Building resilient communities

There’s a lot we can learn from Fort Mac going forward, Mandeville says. Implementing changes in building codes to make new homes and businesses more resilient to wildfires and floods, is key.

“Everyone should be taking a hard look at the materials they use to build and restore properties, specifically around using non-flammable exterior cladding. The days of putting asphalt shingles on houses in wildfire zones, are behind us. I’ve heard people on the ground saying if we had steel roofs, we would not have seen nearly the level of devastation that we had.

“Improved access to rural communities should be a priority. We might have faced mass casualties if, for example, Highway 63 improvements hadn’t been completed, which could’ve slowed evacuation.”

Planning, awareness and preparation are equally as important, he says.

Mandeville commends the insurance industry for its response times and efforts: “This was the largest nat cat we faced, and it posed challenges for all of us. We worked through it together and we all have valuable lessons to learn from it.”

Copyright © 2016 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the November 2016 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.