5 Lessons From Fort Mac: Preventing Future Catastrophic Loss From Wildfire
Insight Last year's wildfires in Fort McMurray devastated a community. Glenn McGillivray, Managing Director at Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, shares the lessons we’ve learned from this catastrophe.
It’s been nearly a year since a wildfire swept through Fort McMurray in Alberta, destroying thousands of homes and forcing the evacuation of the city. With total damages, insurance payments and secondary costs approaching $10 billion, the fire was the single most expensive disaster in Canadian history.
It’s now time to look back on this tragedy and to ask what Canadians can do to mitigate the damage from similar fires in the future. What follows are the key takeaways and lessons learned, as gleaned from a conversation with Glenn McGillivray, Managing Director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.
1. Climate change was a factor, and we can expect fires like this to become more common.
“Last year in Fort McMurray, things dried up faster than usual, and at the time of the fire, it was unseasonably warm for early May, and also quite windy,” says McGillivray. “While climate change doesn’t directly cause a fire like this, it makes the conditions for such a fire rife.”
2. When the conditions for a wildfire are present, sometimes the forest will burn.
“We can’t say for sure what caused the actual sparking of the fire, but it is suspected to be human caused,” says McGillivray. “With those conditions, though, it could just as easily have been started by lightning, and there would have been no way to prevent it.”
3. We must actively plan communities around the risk of wildfires, but individual properties are key.
“We need to build communities in the wildland-urban interface more resiliently. If a community is not flammable, the fire doesn’t have anywhere to go,” says McGillivray. The bottom line is that if you can prevent the embers that blow ahead of the fire from igniting, you can save a property. And that prevents that house from setting the house next door on fire and so on.”
4. Embers land on roofs, and what those roofs are made of is very important.
“Roof design is a big thing,” says McGillivray. “Wood shake roofs, of course, are absolutely horrible if you’re living next to a forest that might burn. Metal roofs are great, but they’re costly. All you really need is a decent asphalt shingle roof. As long as the shingles are class A or class B rated, you’re good to go.”
5. In the end, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.
“We really need to get homeowners on board with understanding the risks and the simple things they can do to make their homes and communities safer,” says McGillivray. “For example, screening below your deck so that embers can’t blow in there and start a fire. Moving your wood pile away from your home. Not attaching a wood fence or wood gate to the side of the house. Not having a barbecue with a propane tank positioned right next to your home. We have a lot of evidence from Fort McMurray showing that it’s just these types of things that made a critical difference from one property to the next.”
As the citizens of Fort McMurray continue to rebuild, Canadians coast to coast need to be looking at their own communities and homes, and asking if they are FireSmart. There are hundreds of communities at risk, especially those that abut forests or grasslands. And there’s no excuse for not taking action when the things that make the biggest difference can be done easily and affordably. As McGillivray puts it: “It’s elbow grease, mostly.”