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Fort McMurray wildfire study reveals steps to boost resilience

September 9, 2019

In post-event review of Canada’s costliest disaster, Zurich and ICLR identify resilience successes and challenges to address before the next wildfire ignites.

5 ways to prepare for wildfires

EDMONTON, Alberta — The costliest disaster in Canada’s history, the Fort McMurray fire, also called the Horse River fire, forced an estimated 88,000 people to evacuate and caused $8.9 billion (Canadian) in damage. Starting in northeastern Alberta on May 1, 2016, the fire raged for two months. While it was declared under control July 4, 2016, the fire continued to smolder and wasn’t extinguished until over a year later.

A post-event review of the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, "Fort McMurray Wildfire: Learning from Canada's costliest disaster," was conducted by Zurich Insurance and the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), to assess resilience actions taken before, during and after the fire. The goal is to provide actionable recommendations for building resilience.

The report arrived at four key recommendations to improve wildfire resilience that fire-prone communities around the world can adapt to their environment and populations. Those recommendations include:


Learn to live with fire
. Wildfire is common in the wildland of northeastern Alberta, as it is in many other forested areas around the world. Wildfire can be a natural driver to maintain the health of an ecosystem and rejuvenate the forest. But there’s a common misconception about how wildfires move from the forest into communities, which leaves some homes and buildings more vulnerable to ignition than others. It’s often not flames but rather wind-driven embers, which arrive ahead of the fire front, that ignite flammable materials in and around homes and other buildings and cause a broader conflagration. Improving understanding of that can help communities grasp the value of using wildfire-resistant materials and techniques in the construction and maintenance of properties.

Invest in resilience and risk reduction. One way to do this is by following the FireSmart® program, which provides insights to establish a resilient landscape and engage property owners. Another is by enacting codes for new development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) and enforcing local statutory requirements. In addition, constructing a second major road for Fort McMurray would improve safety and access in the event of another wildfire. Insufficient exit routes in remote areas of the wildland-urban interface have been a major issue in other wildfire events such as the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California. This risk may be one that other WUI communities may want to examine.


Additional recommendations can be found in the full post-event report on the 2016 Fort McMurray fire, available for download below. The study harnessed Zurich’s award-winning Post-Event Review Capability (PERC), an open-source methodology designed both to evaluate how natural hazard events turn into disasters and to provide practical recommendations to promote resilience, and Canada's Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, based on the Sendai Framework.

This report is Zurich’s 15th post-event review of a disaster and its first report studying a disaster in Canada. It’s also the first time Zurich’s PERC methodology has been adapted to study the peril of wildfire. Previous reports have focused on the peril of flood. Another upcoming post-event review will focus on the California wildfires of 2017 and 2018.