Canadian Underwriter

A fire season like none other

October 6, 2021   by Jason Contant, Online Editor

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When Ryan Dobson first arrived on the scene of the wildfire that almost completely destroyed the village of Lytton, B.C., it reminded him of his time with the Calgary Police homicide unit.

“You would attend a location with a body or bodies present, the area was cordoned off, and you began the process of accumulating evidence,” said Dobson, a fire and explosion investigator with forensic engineering firm Origin and Cause. “I recall how oddly serene even the worst homicide scenes were, where you stood alone in a room that appeared frozen in time. Lytton looked and felt just like that to me.”

The Lytton wildfire was just one of nearly 1,600 (as of Sept. 4) that burned this year in B.C. The fire burned down about 90% of the village, resulting in 300 claims, the majority of which were related to residential properties. Initial insured damage was pegged at about $78 million.

From an investigation standpoint, “it was clear the size and scope of the investigation was going to be challenging, simply because of the ongoing fire situation in the surrounding mountains,” Dobson said. “I watched daily as changing wind direction moved active fires, visible to me in all directions, along with temperatures in the high 30s — and three days above 40°C — allowing for conditions to be favourable for increased fire activity.”

Just before the June 30 Lytton wildfire, the village set the all-time Canadian heat record for three days in a row, culminating in a high of 49.6°C. A historic and dangerous heatwave led to the formation of a “heat dome” that stretched across western Canada and the northwestern U.S., said Michael Young, a wildfire expert and vice president of model product development at Risk Management Solutions Inc. (RMS).

Due to the hot and dry conditions, “anything exterior on fire has had the opportunity, with the added factors of time and wind, to spread quickly,” Dobson said. “With that, I have noted that many fires investigated have been more destructive as a result.”

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but there was speculation that it could have been caused by a passing train. There are a number of parties investigating, including the RCMP, Transportation Safety Board of Canada and the B.C. Wildfire Service.

“The evidence-gathering phase will be ongoing for some time,” Dobson said. “With that said, I am confident that, with the team assembled, we will uncover the facts that will provide answers to the insurers and insured.” He added that Origin and Cause is investigating on behalf of the majority of insurers in the community and is “fully aware” of residents that have no insurance.

This year’s wildfire season is already one for the record books. Between April 1 and Aug. 23, 2021, the province saw 1,539 wildfires and nearly 863,000 hectares of area burned, said Anita Paulic, director of operations and catastrophe response with ClaimsPro in Vancouver. The area burned is more than double the 10-year average of 347,104 hectares burned for a full fire season.

This year’s number of wildfires is also already a couple hundred more than the 10-year average of 1,356.

“There are at least six to eight weeks still to go this year,” Paulic said on Aug. 24. “The fires burning now are bigger and hotter, where the season starts earlier and ends later. Just hearing that firefighters with years of experience are saying they’ve never seen anything like it before is a good indication of what we’re up against out here.”

As of Aug. 5, B.C. had 63 evacuation orders and 103 evacuation alerts, affecting more than 4,200 properties. Six weeks later, more than 21,000 properties remained on evacuation alert.

Claims adjusters are seeing everything from additional living expenses (ALE) to business interruption to total-loss house fires, Paulic said.

For Shane Swinson, senior vice president, insurance portfolio at First Onsite Property Restoration, ALE was the biggest impact claims-wise as of early August. The real area of concern, Swinson added, was smoke and poor air quality.

“As we now get into rain season, the new threat will be mudslides and flooding,” Paulic said. “We have had record heat here in B.C. this summer, and little precipitation. Although we are welcoming the cooler temperature, [it also poses] an issue.”

The vegetation, in an already dry season, has not had time to recuperate from the fires, Paulic explained. This is causing damaged hillsides to act as runoffs for water into valleys.

“Homes may have been salvaged from fire, but are now exposed to mud if heavy rain persists,” she said.

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