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The new threat facing Fort McMurray (and other parts of Western Canada)


June 11, 2018   by Jason Contant


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With hundreds of claims from the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire still unresolved as of late last month, Alberta residents could be forgiven for still worrying about wildfire risks in their own backyard.

The Canadian Press recently reported that as of May 10, some 900 insurance claims were outstanding. Alberta’s Minister of Finance and president of the Treasury Board, Joe Ceci, said in a press release May 23 that there has been some confusion regarding the extension of claims for those affected by the wildfire, which cost insurers nearly $4 billion.

“Let me be clear that there will be a blanket extension within which to file claims for an additional year,” he said at the time. “Our government has been in touch with every insurance company in Alberta and the vast majority have already agreed to grant these extensions voluntary. Should a company choose not to grant this extension, our government is ready and prepared to amend the legislation to ensure residents are being treated fairly and given the additional year to resolve their claims or file legal action.”

While this may mean that the claims process for Canada’s costliest natural disaster is slowly coming to an end, the wildfire risk is far from over.

“Alberta residents are again worried about wildfire risks in their backyard, this time due to the spread of the mountain pine beetle,” according to a report, Building Resilience to the Economic Threat of Invasive Species, released last week. Authored by students from Johns Hopkins University, the report was funded by the Swiss Re Institute and examines the economic costs and policy gaps in managing invasive species in Canada and the United States.

The report explained that the beetle infects pine trees and turns them red, leaving behind a striking trademark on their infected forests. The invasive species has brought down more than 16 million hectares of forests in British Columbia and is likely to spread to new areas due to the changing climate. “However, there is much less conclusive research on the relationship between invasive bugs (and the trees they kill) and wildfires,” the report said.

Scientists agree that the pine beetles kill and dry out trees – making the trees and fallen needles more likely to burn. Others argue that the dead pine trees provide less fuel than live ones. “The real risks, instead, are when the live trees dry out due to increased droughts and warmer temperatures; in these cases, they are much bigger threats to wildfires than the dead trees,” the report authors wrote.

While B.C. has an existing FireSmart homeowners manual with guidance on reducing the risks of wildfire, such as managing combustible vegetation, “there is an opportunity to include mitigation of invasive species under risk mitigation. Nonetheless, reinsurance companies should pay attention to both invasive beetles and plants to track the different wildfire risks they pose.”

There is also evidence that invasive plants, like cheatgrass and phragmites, can act as added fuel for wildfires. “Insurance can help understand the impacts of these invasive species in terms of understanding risk, pricing risk, improving preparedness and triggering rapid response mechanisms,” said Alex Kaplan, senior vice president and head of global partnerships, North America, for Swiss Re.