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Spreading like wildfire: How extreme weather may affect business and communities and steps you can take to help mitigate those risks

July 26, 2016

Extreme weather events like the Fort McMurray wildfire may show businesses how increased global connectivity is increasing risks for people and businesses around the world. Zurich Insurance strives to help businesses and communities build climate resilience.


As of June 2016, the wildfire in Alberta, Canada—nicknamed “The Beast”—had been 70% contained but was still burning. The month before that, over 80,000 residents were forced to evacuate as the fire spread into the city of Fort McMurray. The wildfire was unlike others that have impacted Canada and North America due to its size and speed and the fact that it hit a fairly large city. As Chad Morrison, Alberta’s manager of wildfire prevention said, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a community of this size and scale be impacted by a wildfire of this size and ferocity.”

The fire is expected to be the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history: insurance costs are already running into billions of dollars. Many have speculated on the cause of this fire and what its severity might indicate for future natural disasters.

This particular wildfire was “fuelled by tinder and helped along by unseasonably warm weather and low humidity.” Some say that the severity of the fire is because of El Niño, while others connect its severity to earlier snow melt due to warmer temperatures. Earlier snow melt means that soil and vegetation are drier, which pushes fire season to begin earlier.

In fact, extreme weather conditions have led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970, according to the U.S. Forest Service. “The Beast” could be a first look at what we may be able to expect with future extreme weather events: seasons that last longer and disasters that have a greater impact.

“The Beast” not only suggests the impact of future natural disasters, but it has also had a huge impact on the community of Fort McMurray and the Canadian economy. Fort McMurray is home to a large amount of oil reserves that make up at least 2% of Canada’s GDP, and the fires significantly reduced the amount of oil they will be able to export this year – every day that the plants were closed, they lost roughly one million barrels per day of output, meaning that about a quarter of the country’s oil production was halted by the fire. Canada’s reduced oil product for this year may also impact other countries that rely on their oil, specifically the U.S., which receives 40% of its imported oil from its northern neighbor.

"The Beast” is a terrible and tragic event, which once again reveals the incredible damage that extreme weather events can have on an ecosystem, an economy and a community. It could be that extreme weather events like “The Beast” are going to increase in the future and that, in our increasingly globalized world, these events could have an impact beyond the geographical area hit by the disaster. In order to attempt to minimize and ideally prevent the effects of another event like “The Beast,” consider steps to build resilience against wildfires.

  • First, understand your exposure to wildfire. Proximity to any significant amount of natural material (forests, large stands of trees, brush,  etc.) can create an exposure to wildfire.
  • Next, monitor conditions in your area.  Wildfire watches are typically posted for areas where there is increased threat for a wildfire to occur. A forest suffering from drought conditions with sufficient amounts of fuel is a prime candidate for a wildfire watch. Have sufficient defensible space between your home or business and the forest that is free of vegetation and other combustibles.
  • Closely monitor conditions during a wildfire watch and be ready to take appropriate action at a moment’s notice. A wildfire warning will generally be issued when there is an active wildfire in your area.
  • Consider implementing tougher loss-prevention actions during a wildfire warning. If your business includes combustible yard storage, be prepared to relocate it to an adequately protected area.
  • Most importantly, consider using noncombustible building materials for your home or business. Use roof shingles, commercial roof coverings, siding and wall cladding that have appropriate fire ratings.

Improving your climate resilience is possible, no matter your geographic area or your risk, if you take steps to prepare yourself and your home and business for the risks in your area.

Learn more about protecting your business during fire events: