Why did some homes survive Fort McMurray disaster?

Published: August 24, 2016

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones



The May wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta was the costliest insurance loss in Canadian history, costing $4.5 million. As well as the initial cost on the industry, consumers are expected to take the brunt of the cost with increasing home insurance premiums.

Despite this, the wildfire was a highlight for how important it is for homeowners to have their properties insured. Nearly 3000 properties were lost and insurance against loss was the only saving grace for many homeowners.

However, many properties escaped intact, even if they were amidst the raging heat of the fire. Some homes remained standing when others around them were decimated. The obvious question is, why?

Simply put, those homes were more resistant to ignition from embers, according to a preliminary report from the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR). The report shows that homes surviving in such natural disaster events is not about luck, but more about construction choices and location.

“Whether a home is destroyed by an interface wildfire or not greatly depends on conditions immediately around the structure, the area for which homeowners are responsible,” says ICLR. Direct contact from flames was not a main cause for many home losses, instead “wind-driven embers were the most probable cause for the majority of early home ignitions in the areas where the fire made its transition from forest into urban neighborhoods,” notes the ICLR statement.

Once established, the fire would have spread from structure to structure as an urban conflagration, accounting for the majority of home losses,” the report adds.

The Toronto non-profit continues: “communities are lost when embers ignite fuel immediately surrounding or on structures. Once a few structures ignite, then building-to-building spread leads to an urban conflagration, as we experienced in Fort McMurray,” says Glenn McGillivray, managing director of ICLR.