Fires and floods will become more severe and more frequent in Western Canada — and insurance companies should take notice, a Calgary climate change scientist says.

"It's on everyone's mind this week," Shawn Marshall, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change at the University of Calgary, told CBC News on Tuesday.

Dozens of wildfires are burning across British Columbia, forcing more than 47,000 people from their homes and filling much of Western Canada with smoke.

The devastation comes just over a year after the Fort McMurray wildfire that decimated much of the city, resulting in the largest insurance payout in Canadian history: $3.7 billion, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

"These things just seem to keep happening — and certainly Alberta and the West have taken their fair share of this," said Steve Kee, an insurance bureau spokesperson, in an interview with the Calgary Eyeopener.

"Really, we have no idea to the extent of damage [in B.C.] at this point... It's going to take some time to get this under control and then allow adjusters in to assess."

Kee declined to predict whether insurance companies would be increasing premiums based on the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. No single event would result in a premium jump, he said.

"[Insurers] price according to risk... but insurers also have to look ahead and project what's going to happen," he said.

"We have seen increasing numbers of this over the years, severe weather events. They've lead to higher insurance payouts."

 'If you're the insurance companies, there's a good reason, a valid reason to be concerned.' - Shawn Marshall, climate scientist

Kee recommends people prepare for extreme weather by reviewing insurance policies to make sure such damage would be covered.

Droughts, floods and fires are regular weather processes that will happen regardless of climate change, Marshall said, pointing to the 1930s Great Depression. But overall, the average number and severity of extreme weather disasters is moving up as the climate changes, he said.

Wildfires BC 20170708

Smoke hangs in the air above the Trans-Canada Highway as wildfires burn on mountains near Ashcroft, B.C., late Friday, July 7, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The jet stream is shifting further north, bringing temperatures typical in hot states such as Arizona, Nevada and Montana into southwestern Canada. That hot air holds more moisture, meaning a seemingly contradictory increase in both fires and floods, he said.

"There's a pretty realistic expectation for more of these big fire seasons going forward," Marshall said.

"Doesn't mean every summer's going to be like this, but it's going to be more common and more frequent, so I think if you're the insurance companies, there's a good reason, a valid reason to be concerned about this."

'The weather is changing'

Insurance claims have been increasing over the past 20 years — plus there was a big jump for the Fort McMurray fire claims, according to numbers provided by the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

Marshall says last year's damage "might be eclipsed" by what's happening in B.C. this summer. As of Tuesday afternoon, 122 wildfires covered almost 300,000 hectares in the coastal province, according to B.C. Wildfire Service.

"This is weather still and we're going to get a little bit of everything," Marshall said.

"But the weather is changing in association with climate change, so we really need to think about where this is going and plan for it."


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener and Colleen Underwood