Fort McMurray wildfire costliest insured disaster in Canadian history

The massive Fort McMurray, Alta., wildfire that forced more than 80,000 people from their homes in May is the costliest disaster for insurers in Canadian history.

Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates fire in Alberta city in May will cost insurers about $3.58B

A burnt-out truck in the Beacon Hill area of Fort McMurray, Alta., where a wildfire that started in May has led to billions in insurable damages. (Sylvain Bascaron/CBC Edmonton )

The massive Fort McMurray, Alta., wildfire that forced more than 80,000 people from their homes in May is the costliest disaster for insurers in Canadian history.

The estimated total cost will reach $3.58 billion, according to new estimates from the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

The report, released Thursday, includes the first estimates based on data gathered from a survey collected from insurers.

In all, about 2,400 homes and buildings burned in the fire, which breached city limits on May 3 and torched entire neighbourhoods in the oilsands community.

Hundreds of buildings spared from the flames were left heavily damaged or even uninhabitable from smoke damage.

"This event is largely an insured one, but these numbers fall well short of measuring the real tragedy of this wildfire, one that has taken an immense toll on thousands of individuals and families," said Bill Adams, vice-president, Western and Pacific Region with the insurance bureau.

"This is unprecedented. This is ultimately what insurance is for, but in terms of the scale and the scope of this, the industry ... is really into unchartered territory." 

Incalculable costs

Although the true cost of the disaster can't specifically be calculated, Adams says insurance companies are bearing the brunt of the damages.

"The vast majority of the ultimate cost of this event will be borne by insurance policies of one variety or another. That was not the circumstance in the 2013 southern Alberta flooding," Adams said.

"At the time you could not purchase insurance for overland flooding losses."

Adams said the flood caused $6 billion in damages, but due to a lack of coverage, insurance providers were only forced to pay out $1.7 billion, leaving government agencies to grapple with the remaining costs.

Adams said members of the insurance industry were on the ground within a day of the wildfire evacuation and continue to work with frontline officials on rebuild and cleanup operations.

By next week, he said, insurance providers will announce a co-ordinated debris removal plan so that homeowners who have experienced complete losses can begin cleaning up their properties.

Thousands of people have filed claims including:

  • 27,000 personal property claims, averaging $81,000 each.
  • 5,000 commercial claims, averaging more than $250,000 each.
  • 12,000 auto claims, averaging $15,000 each.

A 2011 wildfire in Slave Lake, Alta., which destroyed much of the town, came with an insurance price tag of almost $750 million. At the time, it was the most expensive fire-related disaster in Canadian history.

The costliest insured disaster in Canadian history had been the 1998 ice storms in Quebec, for which insurers paid out almost $1.9 billion in today's dollars, according to a 2015 IBC annual report.

Floods in southern Alberta in 2013 were the second costliest insured disaster, resulting in $1.8 billion in insured damages.

Consumer squeeze 

As insurance companies fork over billions of dollars, customers are already beginning to pay more, Adams suggested.

"There is no single event, even one of this magnitude, that will, in and of itself, trigger premium increases," Adams said of the wildfire. "The insurance industry really looks at long-term trends and claims as an indicator of where premiums will go.

"This wildfire is the largest, but unfortunately it's one in a series of significant claim events that have taken place in Alberta over the last couple of years." 

'Overwhelming' number

Peter Fortna lost his Abasand home but thankfully, he said, most of his costs will be covered by insurance.

"I don't think anything in Canada could hardly compare. Maybe the (1917) Halifax explosion. This is a once in a lifetime or generation event," Fortna said Thursday.

Peter Fortna visits what's left of his home in the community of Abasand. He said he's overwhelmed that May's wildfire was the costliest insured disaster in Canada's history. (David Thurton/ CBC)

As he surveyed the ruins of his home, where only the shell of a foundation remains, he's overwhelmed by the fact that his house is part of Canada's costliest disaster.

"It just puts into context how this rebuild is going to take that much more energy."

Fortna is occupied with the insurance process and all the paperwork and time it requires.

"It's personally hard making a list of everything you own. It's not an easy process," Fortna said.

"But you know Fort McMurray is a strong community. We'll get through this too."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from David Thurton