Improved communication and prevention among lessons from Fort McMurray

Published: May 25, 2017

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones



Fort McMurray was hit by a wildfire in May, 2016, resulting in the largest insurance loss in Canadian history. Among the numerous lessons learned from the event is that collaboration between municipalities and the need to better manage poor land policies were important. That’s according to one speaker at the Canadian Insurance Financial Forum (CIFF) on Wednesday.

Michael Brisebois, global head of reinsurance at TD Insurance, said at the Toronto-held event that the Fort McMurray wildfire crossed several jurisdictions and highlighted the need for improved collaboration.

“An example would be in the debris removal aspect of the recovery,” he said while speaking in a session titled Perspectives on the Canadian Reinsurance Scene after a Rough Year. “I think there was some confusion there initially and I think if that confusion could be avoided, that would get customers back on their feet quicker.”

The use of poor land was also a factor during the massive wildfire. “Society as a whole is still living with the consequences of poor land use policies,” Brisebois said. “If you take the Waterways area, houses are actually being rebuilt on the Waterways area, even though it is a floodplain and there are no… robust flood mitigation plans that are in place,” Brisebois said. “I think the lesson that should have been learned out of this is we should really be focusing on the proactive prevention of these things.”

The Fort McMurray wildfire claimed thousands of properties and hundreds of vehicles as it swept through the Albertan town. No lives were lost, but nearly 90,000 residents were displaced for over a month and the clean-up operation is ongoing. The Canadian insurance industry was impacted negatively, losing around $4 billion.

Brisebois suggested that systems should be in place to help prevent these kinds of events impacting people and the insurance industry, instead of merely forcing on mitigation once an event occurs.

“Many in the industry, not surprisingly, have said what we need to focus on is proactively preventing these types of disasters from happening.” He offered a suggestion like a buffer zone that separates populated areas from forests, helping to prevent wildfire spreading to urban areas.

“I think if you look back at the Fort McMurray event, the very significant and efficient collaboration between the insurance companies and the reinsurance industry is a very positive example of how we should be working together in these types of disasters,” Brisebois suggested.

Following the Fort McMurray event, it became “pretty clear that both insurance companies and reinsurance companies now look at wildfire a little differently,” Brisebois added. “It’s not a one-off event.”