The wildland/urban interface disaster that struck Fort McMurray, Alberta in May 2016 was the largest ever insured loss in Canada. This wildfire destroyed more than 2,400 structures.
Wildfires are a distinct emergency that have and will lead to increasing losses. This is clear from comparing Fort McMurray, where the losses topped $3.6 billion, with previous disasters: $200 million Kelowna (2003), $750 million Slave Lake (AB) (2011).
So the largest insured loss before Fort McMurray resulted from a 2011 bush fire that impacted Slave Lake, another small Alberta town. There were differences: the Slave Lake fire was fed by sparks and embers. Fort McMurray was hit by an advancing fire front that jumped to ignite trees, which made it impossible to control.
The Institute of Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) conducted a professional investigation of the Fort McMurray firestorm before the Alberta Government allowed residents who had fled for safety to return. The Report confirmed that climate change contributed to the risk, as did unnecessary forest fuel accumulation and expanded residential development.
The Report* reached conclusions that will alter the way that governments, communities and industry prepare for, respond to, and recover from future wildfires.
To summarize the findings of the ICLR Report: fires that destroyed houses were not spread by direct contact with flames or radiant heat: those fires spread through wind-driven embers. The homes that survived had high FireSmart criteria. Those that did not had low criteria.
The investigation concluded that losses can be prevented, but this depends on widespread adoption of risk mitigation within the home ignition zone (an area in depth of a few metres surrounding a home).
One containment technique used by crews fighting a wildfire is the creation of a fire break. Municipalities in a high risk area could establish precautionary fire breaks through zoning restrictions that prevent construction of homes next to a forest. This type of containment is no help if high winds carry embers into a new location. For example, embers were reportedly blown up to 10 km ahead of the Fort McMurray fire front, and the fire jumped the Assiniboine River at a point where it was 1 km wide.
And the ultimate long term policy – not mentioned in the draft report – is to reduce fossil fuel emissions that lead to global warming – which leads to drought – which leads to tinder-dry forests, which lead to extreme wild fires.
*Presently in draft form
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