Event amnesia could prevent Fort McMurray from learning from fire mistakes

Published: October 5, 2017

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones



The May 2016 wildfire that swept through the northern Alberta town of Fort McMurray was the costliest insurance event in Canada’s history. It impacted insurance companies, with only the largest able to ride the losses to profit last year. While it is widely accepted that lessons have been learned, one speaker at the National Insurance Conference of Canada (NICC) says event fatigue could be a problem.

Shane Schreiber, managing director of Alberta Emergency Management Agency says that short and medium terms lessons have been learned, but “the further you get away from an event, the less catastrophic it seems and the more bad habits you allow yourself to slide back into.”

“So I take it as a bit of a personal challenge to me and my organization to try and learn as much as we can and don’t suffer from event amnesia and start to slide backwards,” he said on Monday during a session titled Did We Get it Right? A Realistic View of the Industry’s Performance in Fort McMurray.

He says in the days following the blaze, “everybody wanted their backyard cleared of trees,” but during the proceeding weeks, “people started saying, ‘You know, how about you cut somebody else’s trees down because I like mine.’ So I think we’re going to have to work hard to avoid event amnesia and maintain that higher level of resilience that being in contact with an event creates.”

Mike Van Elsberg, deputy senior vice president of claims west for Intact Financial Corporation, was also in attendance. His company was one of the only to make a profit last year in the wake of Fort McMuaary and Van Elsberg believe more work should be done to improve community resilience.

“Absolutely we need to look at how we build better, more resilient communities so that these things don’t happen again.”

He believes giving time to address the issues is important and that change need to come from a legislative level “to make sure it’s embedded in the building code so that when these events happen, the rulebook is ready for us. Don’t have that discussion when the customer is held hostage while we’re trying to sort this out. Customers who are sitting with their young kids in a hotel somewhere are not interested in that at that point.”