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Wildfire resilience takes center stage at RIMS Canada

September 19, 2019

A presentation at the annual gathering of insurance and risk professionals helped launch a new report on the 2016 fires in Fort McMurray.

The Thought Leader Theatre at RIMS Canada in Edmonton was packed to overflowing for a brief but thought-provoking presentation on the Fort McMurray wildfires of 2016 on Monday, September 9.

Scott Thomas, Head of Risk Services for Zurich Canada, opened the monologue with a personal memory of witnessing firefighters respond to a wildfire when he was a teenager and how their efforts to save homes still resonates with him.


Then, he cited some statistics from the Fort McMurray fire: More than 2,500 homes and structures were damaged or destroyed by the fire; some 88,000 people were forced to evacuate the region; and the total cost of damage was estimated at nearly $9 billion. Two people died during the evacuation.

Thomas also shared some of the key findings from a Zurich report released that morning, Fort McMurray Wildfire: Lessons learned from Canada’s costliest disaster. The report outlines four recommendations:

  • Learn to live with fire: Fire is a necessary part of wildfire management, and the right amount of fire at the right time can help prevent everything from burning to the ground.
  • Establish a Wildland Fire Resilience Advisory Committee: The Government of Alberta has an opportunity to establish such a committee, intended to bring together stakeholders to anticipate and prepare response plans for future major fires in the wildland-urban interface.
  • Invest in resilience and risk reduction: Wood Buffalo and the Government of Alberta would benefit from actively promoting the FireSmart® program, the premier national program helping Canadians reduce their wildfire risk and build resilience, as a strategy to establish a resilient landscape and engage property owners.
  • Develop a pre-hazard major wildfire recovery plan: Communities in the wildland-urban interface should strategize in advance of a hazard how they will "build back better" following a wildfire.

Thomas also highlighted the efforts of Jody Butz, who is featured in the report as a “resilience trailblazer.” Butz, Fire Chief for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, where Fort McMurray lies, oversaw operations during the response in 2016. In his current role, he is focused on creating resilience to wildfires, in part by educating firefighters around the world using lessons learned from Fort McMurray.

Thomas closed the presentation by emphasizing that while hazards are natural, catastrophes are not. Building community resilience can help make the difference between a wildfire risk and a wildfire disaster.

In the short video below, Thomas explains why it’s important to continue talking about wildfire risk three years after the catastrophic Fort McMurray fires.