'A system that is broken': 190 Fort McMurray wildfire insurance claims remain unresolved

More than three years after a wildfire tore through Fort McMurray, hundreds of people whose homes were reduced to ashes or damaged beyond repair are still waiting on insurance settlements.

"Insurance companies are fighting everything, every step of the way," said Fort McMurray-based lawyer Christine Burton.

"There are so many biases in the system. It's a mystery, they simply say 'no.'" 

In an emailed statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Alberta's Treasury Board and Finance department said the province has been tracking insurance settlements related to the May 2016 wildfire.

The "vast majority" of claims have been resolved, it says. 

All of the 14,441 automobile insurance claims are settled, and of the 25,498 residential claims filed, 190 remain unresolved, the province said. 

'Insurance companies have cut them off' 

Burton, who is working on more than 40 of the unresolved cases, said the wildfire has become an ongoing legal nightmare for her clients.

While some residents had their claims dealt within a matter of weeks, others have been left in a crippling financial limbo for 42 months.

"One of the biggest frustrations is the inconsistencies of how these claims have been dealt with," Burton said in an interview Monday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM

"You will have neighbours whose homes are right beside the other, who are treated totally different although they have suffered exactly the same damage.

"Most of these people who are out of their homes are renting somewhere else and paying their mortgages and yet, the insurance companies have cut them off from their living allowances." 

The wildfire, which destroyed 15 per cent of the buildings in the northern Alberta city, is considered the most expensive insured disaster in Canadian history. 

The Insurance Bureau of Canada expects to pay out $3.7 billion in wildfire-related insurance claims to policyholders in the Wood Buffalo region.

The province doesn't get involved with detailed decisions between insurance companies and claimants.

However,  the Treasury Board and Finance Department has a superintendent of insurance who regulates the conduct of insurance companies. The Alberta Insurance Council regulates agents, adjusters and brokers.

The province said options to homeowners waiting on settlements include pursuing private mediation services, relying on the government's dispute resolution process, or hiring a lawyer. 

"We are of course sympathetic with those families that were affected by the wildfire, particularly those who are still dealing with the after-effects," reads a statement from the province. 

"The superintendent continues to work with consumers and insurance companies to address concerns in a fair and timely manner. The superintendent's office is not currently aware of any misconduct by insurance companies in regard to this matter. If a claimant believes there has been misconduct, they should file a complaint." 

Burton would like to see changes in the Insurance Act to ensure claims are paid out consistently without onerous delays. 

The wildfire has shown that the province is unprepared to deal with large-scale disasters, Burton said. 

"There should be some lessons learned for the insurance companies. There are a lot of inherent problems in the claims process," Burton said. 

"This is about addressing a system that is broken … These people had gold, platinum-standard policies. None of them delivered."