A hail of glowing embers bounces off the hood of the pickup creeping in gridlocked traffic. Headlights can’t penetrate the billows of greasy smoke swirling in a hot, heavy wind. As the camera pans, pine trees barely a car-length away explode into flames that jet 30 metres up into the gloom. A creepy purple glow illuminates the horizon.
If you’ve watched videos of the Fort McMurray evacuation this is a familiar scene.
And for one independent adjuster it was personal. Claims Adjuster Kenna Williamson of Canadian Claims Services in Edmonton recounts hearing from her mother, who worked at the Fort McMurray hospital, on the afternoon the evacuation started.
“She sent me a picture of the flames coming over the hill and she said, ‘well the fire’s getting very close to town.’ She wondered if she should go home.”
While Kenna tensely waited in Edmonton, phone in hand, her mother spent nine hours in the car traveling about eight kilometres to find Kenna’s dad. It’s hard to imagine the fortitude it would take to stay in the car and not panic under those conditions.
How the 88,000 people of the northern Alberta city managed on May 3rd, 2016 to escape this hell-hole of an inferno-a wildfire so big and bad it was know as The Beast-with no immediately related deaths is mind-boggling. It’s a testament to an amazing response from police, fire and other officials.
And in the aftermath, the insurance industry stepped up, making the claims process, the re-entry and recovery as smooth and quick as possible for returning residents.
The magnitude of this wildfire and the damage it caused makes it the worst natural disaster in Canadian history, with current estimates of insured property damage recently climbing from $3.58 billion to $4.76 billion. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) this is more than twice the amount of the previous costliest natural disaster on record-the 2013 southern Alberta flood, which cost $1.7 billion in insurance claims.
In Fort McMurray, CatIQ reports that there are more than 27,000 personal property claims, with an average value of $81,000. There are also more than 12,000 auto insurance claims, averaging $15,000 per claim. In addition, the more than 5,000 commercial insurance claims average over $227,000 per claim. It’s estimated that 2,400 structures will have to be rebuilt, including 1,600 homes. That’s about 10 percent of the city’s structures, according to CMHC.
Just looking at the pictures of the post-fire devastation in the most severely affected neighbourhoods of Abasand, Waterways and Beacon Hill is enough to make anyone choke up a bit. There’s little left of many houses besides an ashy outline of a foundation. Charred trucks and RVs, kids’ play structures and warped pools sit as sad and sobering reminders of how much worse this tragedy could have been if the evacuation had not gone so smoothly.
And then there’s the rest of the damage-smoke, ash and heat played havoc across vast swathes of the city, leaving thousands of properties in need of assessment and restoration.
The insurance industry’s response to the fire was immediate. Within a day of the evacuation, adjusters and other insurance professionals began the process of assessing the damage.
The industry worked together to streamline and facilitate access and logistics for the thousands of adjusters and other personnel who needed access to the city. And it was instantly evident that help would need to be called in from across the country.
Since there is no provision for temporary licensing of adjusters in Alberta, the Alberta Insurance Council, the financial and governance arm of the four Alberta insurance councils, including the Insurance Adjusters’ Council, quickly implemented an “Expedited Non-resident Adjuster Licensing Protocol” to allow for rapid accreditation of out-of-province adjusters. This speeded things up by allowing independent adjusters with accreditation in their own jurisdiction to receive an Alberta license by proving their licensing status and providing a criminal record check within two months.
This new process comes about in part thanks to the hard work CIAA has done over the past few years.
“The Alberta Council was very pro-active in agreeing to adjusters from other provinces to get Alberta licenses and they have a pretty streamlined process, at least in Crawford’s experience,” says Jim Eso, Crawford and Company’s Senior Vice President, Property & Casualty. “But CIAA has been working with the regulators for years to get to the point where the qualifications of an adjuster from another province will be recognized and quickly approved by the regulators in Alberta. A few years ago, this would not have been as easy… [this] mutual cooperation between the regulator and the adjusters… in the end is to the benefit of the policy holders in desperate need of help in a catastrophe.”
Innovation like this is a hallmark of the response to the Fort Mac fire. In pulling out all the stops, the IBC made a decision that turned out to be a lynchpin for coordinating the insurance industry’s activity in the city.
Shortly after the fire they hired Rob de Pruis, an industry veteran who stepped into the newly created role of Insurance Industry Claims Liaison. He hit the ground in the burned out city on May 14th, working with his IBC colleagues to provide a host of services for the horde of busy adjusters who needed access to the insureds’ properties.
De Pruis was embedded with the Regional Emergency Operations Centre (REOC), working alongside the entire group responsible for managing the situation, planning the re-entry of citizens and ensuring everyone’s safety.
“In thinking back in my career, I’m not certain if there’s any other event where we’ve seen such a coordinated response by our industry,” de Pruis says. “There’s dozens of insurance companies, thousands of adjusters and service providers that are responding to the needs of tens of thousands of displaced residents, and the IBC is playing a real central role with the emergency management officials, the government and the stakeholders, providing a steady stream of absolutely vital information to the insurance industry and also to the residents as well.”
In practical terms, de Pruis was the go-to guy who ensured adjusters could get the permissions they needed to enter restricted zones in town. He personally manned the perimeter gate-for 14 hours a day from May 29 to June 3-managing and expediting access to pre-approved adjusters and handing out the coloured wristbands that everyone had to wear inside. During the three-day period de Pruis processed about 1,000 claims personnel.
“Our first test, if you want to call it that, was getting adjusters access to a community that was still locked down by the emergency officials so that the adjusters could get in and do what they were trained to do.”
As the claims representative at the REOC daily briefings, he said he was given a voice and welcomed into the fold.
On the ground
Shawn Burnett, Managing Director at MGB Claims was one of the adjusters whose entry de Pruis facilitated while the evacuation order was still in effect.
“In most catastrophes there’s lots of physical damage everywhere, things are destroyed and broken and in bad shape, but generally you find people are still there… There’s usually people and basic services, even if it’s on a very reduced scale,” he says.
“But in this one, because the entire city was evacuated, and there was basically a lockdown on driving around in the city limits of Fort McMurray, it was like a zombie apocalypse-there was nobody there. It was like a complete ghost town. You would just drive and see cars abandoned on the side of the road with their passenger doors still open and, you know, an empty baby stroller sitting on the sidewalk. It was like aliens came down and just sucked everyone out of the city.”
On a lighter note, both Burnett and Lee Powell, Cunningham Lindsey’s Director Major Loss Services – Property, found themselves all alone in the city, but stopping for red lights, nonetheless. “The streetlights are still working, the stoplights are working, so you’re stopped at a stoplight, but there’s literally no one in town and you’re stopped waiting for the a green light,” Powell says.
Burnett said he had heard there were red light cameras still working, and he wasn’t taking any chances. “I’m the only car there for miles, but I look and I see this camera box facing me and I’m like, ‘Well I’m not driving through there’,” he laughs. “So I basically would sit there for two minutes until the light would change.”
Life for the adjusters in Fort Mac posed a few challenges, once they had permission to enter the city to do their jobs. Because of the evacuation order they were not able to stay in town, and accommodations were scarce. The lucky ones found basic space-small single rooms with three meals a day-at the camps scattered around the region that normally serve the oil industry.
But others were not so lucky. Lee Powell ended up staying in Lac La Biche, a small town of just under 3,000, three hours’ drive from Fort McMurray.
“We’d drive to Fort McMurray making sure to fill up with gas before we got there, do our work and then drive back to Lac La Biche,” he says. “Six hours to get to work,” he laughs.
That work was important-his claims involved getting major retailers that were considered essential services up and running again. But, he said, the logistics of the Fort Mac cat will definitely push the costs up.
“You’re dealing with costs that were ranging between $250 to $350 a day in terms of camp costs for every worker, every general laborer that was going to be doing cleaning, so that’s adding a significant cost for the clean up there,” he says.
“That’s being passed on to insurers.”
Safety and security
Personal health and safety was a serious concern for everyone working in the evacuation area. The ash has a high pH value, making it caustic, potentially causing skin and respiratory irritation and burns; there are heavy metals such as arsenic and hexavalent chromium present; and, in addition to asbestos, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and furans were detected at risky concentrations.
Adjusters had to sign in and out of the restricted areas, and proper protection equipment had to be shown at the access points for the three worst zones, Abasand, Waterways and Beacon Hill. Full protective clothing, including long sleeves and pants, appropriate foot, eye and head protection and an N95 respirator were required, and as Shawn Burnett discovered, they were worth having.
“I was dealing with a building within Beacon Hill that was not directly affected by the fire. There was lots of smoke damage, it had no power for weeks, so I went in with a contractor who had different cartridges on his respirator and when we went into the building the smell from rotting food in the freezers and refrigerator was awful. I didn’t smell anything, but he had to turn around leave, he was almost vomiting.”
Where did everybody go?
Typically coming in a little later than the adjusters, those responsible for the restoration of Fort McMurray properties found a different environment and new challenges.
Finding the insured whose properties his company was tasked with working on was a huge challenge for Andrew Ross, Chief Operating Officer at Specialized Property Evaluation Control Services Limited (SPECS), based in Langley, British Columbia.
“Fort McMurray, by virtue of its industry, has attracted people from all over North America,” he says. “And following the disaster, a lot of people who had nowhere else to live would return to their hometown. We have people anywhere from Vancouver Island to the Florida Keys and everywhere in between.”
And although the insurers were helping by providing contact information, unfortunately most of the numbers were home numbers, “and of course, those were no longer functioning because of the fire.”
Ultimately, however, a phone and email blitz-powered by extra staff-allowed SPECS to reach 1,250 of the 1,350 policy-holders on its list.
Care and feeding
Katie Mouritzen, Winmar’s Regional Vice President for Western Canada, was in Fort Mac overseeing the cleaning contracts her company was fulfilling. Like Ross and SPECS, her team also had some difficulty in getting permissions from absent homeowners. But the real hurdle was just keeping up with the volume of work.
“A challenge is making sure that we take care of our own guys too. These guys are working long hours and six, seven days a week, so we really need to be mindful of making sure we take care of them,” she says. “It could be very quickly forgotten that you’re not Superman and you can’t be working all hours of the night and day, and every day of the week, because then, then you may not be getting the production that you need.”
Mouritzen had more than 200 staff in the field, and their hard work was appreciated by residents. She noted that homeowners were almost universally grateful and went out of their way to ensure the cleaning teams felt it. One family treated its work crew to a pizza party in thanks.
Dust to ashes?
The nature of the fire and the Fort McMurray environment posed a conundrum for adjusters and restorers alike. Rob LeBlanc, Senior Project Manager with the Newtron Group in Brampton, Ontario was at the scene to restore equipment. He and his crew work on office, hospital and other electrical equipment and were called on to clean-among other things-the projectors for a movie theatre in town.
But the difficulty with the Fort Mac fire residue is that it was visually indistinguishable from the local dust. “In most cases the contaminant’s visible and there’s visible signs of a fire within the property,” LeBlanc says. “But out here, other than what’s obviously burnt to the ground, if the building was still standing, then there was no visual clear evidence that the building had been affected by the fire itself.”
Shawn Burnett ran into the same problem in assessing properties for damages: “There’s a lot of dust blowing around and people that live there are used to it.” But after a building has been vacant for a month, with no one going in or out, there would be lots of dust and no way to tell by looking at it if it’s ash or just normal dust.
“So it was difficult to separate what is just normal Fort McMurray dust and general environmental conditions from, from soot and wildfire smoke. Short of having every property swiped, sampled and sent out to environmental engineers, you had to look and, luckily for me every insured that I dealt with was very reasonable. They were quite up front and honest, saying ‘this does not appear to be anything beyond slightly contaminated…might be a little smoke in there, but we don’t need to have to have our place gutted.'”
Sense of community
All the people interviewed for this story recounted episodes of kindness, caring and strong community.
From the jubilant marking of the re-entry with “Fort Mac Strong” signs along the road, to individual acts of selflessness, the fire definitely brought the community together.
“It’s amazing to see how the communities really come together to help each other out,” Kenna Williamson says. “I’ve got claims for commercial businesses and the help that some of these businesses got from other members of the community that were maybe in a worse-off position, is just amazing.”
She said people brought food and water, or would help clean if there were coverage issues or a shortage of crews available. “They had customers or members of the business all coming together, just doing whatever they can to help out.”
That spirit of goodwill carries over to the organizational side as well. The level of collaboration among various stakeholders in the claims and restoration processes for the Fort Mac cat has been outstanding.
Not only has the insurance industry stepped up through the auspices of the IBC and Alberta Council, insurers are cooperating closely on projects.
For example, SPECS is coordinating a large demolition project for a number of the insurers who have agreed to work together. At the moment Ross says it’s 19 insurers collaborating, with SPECS managing the project, to take advantage of economies of scale, and gain efficiencies in getting some work completed.
While this is another innovative method for handling a large volume of claims in the same geographical area, it’s not new in Fort Mac. Ross believes the Slave Lake fire was the first time it was tried, although on a much smaller scale; this is the largest project SPECS has ever tackled.
“In Slave Lake we were involved with just under 400 single-family residential, total losses that we coordinated the demolition for. With, I think it was 11 insurers in that case,” Ross says. “In this case it’s 19 insurers and we’re currently sitting at around 800 participants in the program, with the potential for more.”
Competing contractors had to be able to have 30 excavators on site at any one time, with the corresponding number of dump trucks to serve them. It was a challenge, Ross says, but they hired Fort McMurray First Nation #468 as the lead, in partnership with Morgan Construction and Environmental. The demolition work will be done by September 30.
By all accounts, communications throughout the post-fire period have been excellent. The ongoing town hall meetings held by the province and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo have been a clearinghouse for important news and details for residents and service providers alike.
The municipality also created an online damage assessment tool for homeowners and the insurance industry to help identify the condition of specific properties. Once an address is entered the tool delivers detailed images of the property taken before and after the fire, from all angles, along with a fire report. This allowed adjusters to get an initial sense of the condition of a property without necessarily needing to visit the location.
Just as a wildfire clears the land for new growth, The Beast has cleared the way for innovation and creativity in the way the claims process can be handled after a major catastrophe.
“Never before has the insurance industry been provided such access to those that are directly managing the response and recovery so early in the process. So it’s likely that this is going to become a best practice for the collaboration between the emergency management agencies and the private sector insurance industry in Canada,” de Prius says. “It’s been a learning process and it really feels like we are writing the playbook right now.”
From the perspective of an adjuster on the ground, “it all helped,” says Morris Blatz. “Unfortunately this isn’t the last catastrophe that’s going to happen in our country. We have to learn from it so that we can be prepared and deal with it, so I think it was good that there was somebody taking the lead on it.”
And while the insurance industry is still deeply involved and “not leaving anytime soon”, de Pruis says, it’s still clear that important progress has been made in the way cats are handled.
A lot of teamwork and long hours went into the establishment of new protocols and best practices for dealing with an event with the magnitude of the Fort McMurray wildfire. While nobody wants to put them into practice again, it’s inevitable that another cat will occur, and this time the industry will be even better prepared to swiftly get people’s needs assessed, claims adjusted and lives back to normal.