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Fort McMurray: Two Years On

It’s been almost two years since those huge flames engulfed Fort Mac, changing many lives forever. I still recall staring at the TV in disbelief as frightened people crammed the highway, trying to flee as the menacing fires devoured homes behind them. It was a huge disaster by any definition.

The impacts of the Fort McMurray fires were huge.

It’s hard to imagine, but when it started in the first week of May 2016, the fire was small in intensity and volume. It was over six kilometers outside of Fort McMurray. Within a couple of days, it had ballooned into a gigantic inferno which, in a period of over four weeks ravaged almost 600,000 hectares of land. The effects have been far-reaching. From an insurance perspective, the Insurance Bureau of Canada cites it as the worst naturally occurring disaster in Canadian history and most expensive ever to insure.

By the time the dust settled, the fire had destroyed over 1,900 structures and displaced more than 90,000 people. Various estimates place the financial and economic cost of the disaster at over $8 billion. In addition, thousands were psychologically traumatized. In a period of less than eight weeks, over 18,000 people were referred to addiction and mental health centers for assistance. This was a sharp rise from the normal average of about 1,000 mental health cases per year.

Although it was a horrible tragedy, the fire also showcased the generosity of spirit that characterizes Canadians. People opened their homes to the displaced, gave generously to aid organizations and helped where they could. In an effort to expedite the claims process, most insurance companies established temporary claims offices at the Northlands evacuation centre in Edmonton, Lac la Biche and Calgary.

Faced with the enormous task of returning normalcy to the affected people and area, the government of Alberta and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo acted in concert in response to the fire disaster and in rolling out recovery plans.  

Full recovery will of course take years, but there’s no doubt that the way everybody worked together played a significant role in the rebuilding and recovery that has occurred thus far. Two years on, things are definitely looking up.

Fort Mac Today: Recovery and Rebuilding

Two years down the line, the passage of time has cleared many visible scars of the fire tragedy. There has been a phased return of evacuees with new homes springing up in open sites replacing the damaged or destroyed ones. Of about 12% of the buildings that were affected by the fire, the vast majority were homes and these are currently undergoing reconstruction, and it is expected that they will be completed by 2019. The charred remains of trees and debris, which were an eye sore immediately after the fire, have been removed. An ambitious reforestation program, run by the Fort Mac Municipality in collaboration with private and nonprofit organizations, has resulted in the planting of thousands of new trees. The air, which had been tainted by noxious smoke, is now clear and healthy. Tests done on soil samples, ash and air quality show that things are gradually being restored to normal. Landscaping has been redone around the newly built homes and homes are again beautifully decorated with recently grown flowers.   

Emotional and mental scars still linger though, in the hearts and minds of many victims. Alberta Health Service continues to be supportive of the city’s residents whose mental health are still affected by the memories of the disaster. Within six months after the disaster, the number of people with post-traumatic stress was about 40,000, an unprecedented figure. As with individuals, the over 3,500 small businesses which were badly hit by the disaster are recovering gradually.

Preventing Future Wildfires

There’s no doubt that lessons were learned from the disaster. In its wake, the municipality of Wood Buffalo adopted programs aimed at reducing the risk of fires to neighborhoods and homes. The provincial government boosted its funding to Fire Smart, an initiative that uses preventative measures to reduce wildfire threat to Albertans and their communities, while balancing the benefits of wildfire on the landscape. In all the lands that fall under its jurisdiction, the Wood Buffalo Municipality has put measures in place to prevent and minimize the likelihood of wildfires in future.

Hopefully, such a catastrophic event will never occur again, but nobody can say for certain it never will. The best thing to do is to prepare for such an eventuality. Your insurance broker is available to help you ensure that you’re protected.

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