Fort McMurray residents looking to rebuild their homes after the wildfire

Saif Alnuweiri
Usman Saibu, right, sprays some mud off of Owen Jurak as the workers attempt to bring back some essential services to a hard-hit area of Fort McMurray, Alta., following last year’s wildfire. Photo from CP.

A year to the day that a massive forest fire forced 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., to flee their homes, many returning residents face a new, and manmade, set of problems.

“Everybody’s following a different process,” Chad Jensen, chief executive of New Dawn Developments, told the Globe and Mail earlier this year. “Because the framework for quoting is inconsistent, quotes are like comparing apples and oranges.”

Jensen, a developer planning on building 100 homes in the city this summer, said homeowners and insurers have been caught in “claims chaos” because there was no unified set of guidelines for the insurance industry to handle such an enormous number of claims at once.

Developers tasked with rebuilding Fort McMurray have said that insurers will often cover the price of replacing items lost in the fire, but usually at a lesser value than what was destroyed. “When we’re quoting for a job in Abasand, for example, we’ll quote to replace the original cedar siding, which is expensive. Other builders are quoting for vinyl siding, which is cheaper,” Jensen explained to the newspaper.

The Canadian Press reports total insurance claims in Fort McMurray has reached approximately $3.8 billion with the average claim sitting at around $80,000.

And yet, some homeowners started paying out of their own pockets to get essentials such as the roof replaced instead of waiting for claims to be processed and approved. But doing so prevented some of those same homeowners from being able to file claims for damage to roofs because they didn’t follow process and wait for an evaluation.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada has said that the 45,000 claims made were mostly for residential units. Insurance companies, criticized by residents for being slow at both approving and processing claims, have admitted there has been struggles.

“It’s certainly been a challenge from the perspective of being able to provide the level of service that we pride ourselves,” Alberta Motor Association Insurance vice-president Ted Koleff told CBC News. The executive added that his company received 5,000 insurance claims in a matter of days after the fire, a number representative of claims made over an entire year under normal circumstances.

However, the city is starting to get back on its feet. Around 96 homes were being built in January, followed by 92 in February, according to Global News. Fort McMurray has also approved more than 640 building permits, according to city councillors.

As claims are approved and reconstruction starts though, fresh concerns have been raised that many of the homes are being rebuilt with the same combustible material as before the fire.

“As they rebuild those homes, they’re rebuilding them largely the same way they were, with the same materials that burned,” said Bill Adams, a vice-president with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, to CBC News.

To prevent a similar loss in future events, which will are likely to become more common thanks to extreme weather patterns caused by climate change, homeowners have been advised to spend the extra cash on less flammable, albeit more expensive, materials. “Our investigation concluded that wind-driven embers were the cause of the majority of the home ignitions, not direct contact with fire or radiant heat,” Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, revealed to the Globe and Mail.

But the added cost is unlikely to entice homeowners already saddled with expenditures that they feel should be covered by their insurance provider.

“Insurance, which is paying the bulk of the costs for rebuilding the community, only provides enough money to put you back in your pre-existing condition,” Adams told the CBC.