In this in-depth feature we brought together some of the leading experts from the insurance industry, academia, and practice to reflect on the progress made and the challenges remaining for fire management in Canada.
By Paul Kovacs, Alice Cullingford, Mike Flannigan, and Lilia Yumagulova
We have achieved significant progress reducing fire risk through regulatory, construction, and behavioural changes. However, fire risk has changed as well due to land-use and resource-use patterns, climate change and other environmental shifts. This dynamic process of fire risk reduction and fire risk creation offers rich opportunities for learning for addressing other risks.
A history of wildland fire management
By Paul Kovacs, Executive Director, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction
For thousands of years, wildland fire has been present in North America. Many ecosystems depend on fire to bring renewal and regrowth, including prairie, savannah, and coniferous forests. Some plants and trees require fire to germinate and reproduce.
Fire is also a longstanding threat that can bring loss of life and destruction of property. The frequency and severity of fire has increased with more people living in the wildland-urban interface and active in the wildlands. Moreover, change in the climate is increasing the area burned by wildfire and the risk of loss.
Prior to European settlement
The wildlands in North America prior to European settlement were shaped by generations of natural and managed fire. In particular, fire management by Indigenous peoples transformed some forests into grasslands and savannah, and where forests remain, fire was used to increase the open space between trees and remove underbrush.
Indigenous groups across North America managed wildland fire risk for thousands of years. This included intentional, controlled burning of forests and grasslands. In moist climates, intentional fire was used in the spring to control new growth, while in dry regions it was more common to set fires in the fall. The cycle of burning would be suspended during periods of prolonged drought due to the increased risk of fires burning out of control.
Fire was also used during hunts to divert deer, elk and bison to specific locations, and to convert forest areas into grasslands that would support larger herds of grazing animals and in turn, increase the food available to support the community. Burning near settlements reduced the threat to lives and property by removing some of the fuel available if lightning should strike. Fire was also used to increase berry yields, reduce the cover that predators like wolves and bears may use to hide in, and ease movement through the wildlands.
Despite actions taken to manage the risk of wildfire, extended periods of drought could leave grasslands and forests vulnerable to catastrophic, uncontrolled fire. Fire could destroy property accumulated over a lifetime, ruin crops, and scare away prey. The risk of starvation and illness following the fire may have been the greatest threat.
The risk of wildland fire in North America changed with European settlement. Settlers introduced the objective to suppress all fires. Moreover, settlers increased the frequency of ignitions in the wildland due campfires, sparks from a locomotive, and other sources.
In terms of loss of life, the largest fire losses ever experienced in North America took place following European settlement. Some large fires in Canada include the Miramichi Fire in 1825, the Saguenay Fire in 1870, Cochrane Fire in 1911, Matheson Fires in 1916, the Great Saskatchewan Fire in 1919, and the Haileybury Fire in 1922. Hundreds of people lost their lives and many villages were destroyed.
Following the Great Fire of 1910, the US Forest Service formally committed to a strategy of suppressing all forest and grass fires in the wildland. Governments across Canada soon adopted a suppression strategy for much of the country. A critical measure of success for firefighters focused on how soon a fire was identified and put out.
Overall, European settlement brought a focus on fire exclusion in the wildlands. For several decades, this resulted in a significant reduction of fatalities and property damage due to wildfire.
Toward a modern approach
Since the 1980s, the wildland fire loss events have grown in frequency and severity. Decades of fire exclusion increased the accumulation of shrubs, bushes and undergrowth. Moreover, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of people that pursue recreation activities in the wildland and live in the wildland-urban interface.
The Forest Service in the United States has withdrawn its commitment to suppress all fires in the wildland; nevertheless, firefighting efforts across North America continue to focus on the early identification and suppression of most fires in the wildland. The cost of fire exclusion has increased significantly, driven by the growing number of homes located in areas of risk and increased area burned.
In 2005, a joint federal, provincial, and territorial vision statement was released setting out a plan for managing fire risks through the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy. This national vision seeks to establish a balance between actions to respond to wildfire, promote healthy forests, and build resilient communities. The vision statement was renewed in 2016, and enjoys strong support from a broad range of stakeholders, although most elements have not yet been funded.
Insurance and wildfire
By Paul Kovacs, Executive Director, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction
Fire in the wildland occurs across the country. Management of wildfire risk is a national challenge led by the provincial and territorial governments, supported by the federal government. Since 1980, however, more than 95 percent wildland fire damage to insured property has taken place in Alberta and British Columbia. Insurance companies have focused much of their attention on Western Canada.
More than 95 percent of Canadian homeowners, and 99 percent of Canadian businesses purchase insurance protection for their property. All insurance policies cover the risk of loss and damage from fire, including wildfire. Modern insurance practices derive from the management of urban fire risk, and the industry has an active interest in the risk of wildland fire, the risk of loss, and risk management.
Since 1980, wildland fire has not been an issue considered by insurance companies in most years in most parts of the country. More than 90 percent of the wildland fire damage claims paid by Canadian insurance companies since 1980 were the result of fires in British Columbia in 2003 and 2017, and fires in Alberta in 2011 and 2016. In particular, most of the wildland fire damage claims paid were a result of the 2016 fire in Fort McMurray. The current interest of insurance companies in wildland fire is much greater than it was before these recent large loss events.
Some perils in a basic insurance policy coverage for homeowners include the risk of damage from fire, wind, hail, and lightning. Protection against loss from other perils may be added to insurance coverage, but are not part of the basic policy, like water damage from sewers backing up, earthquake, and overland flood. The risk of loss and damage from wildland fire is automatically included. Insurance coverage differs from company to company so it is important to check the details of a specific policy, but loss and damage from a wildland fire is typically included for a homeowner or business that has insurance.
Some property owners choose not to buy insurance. It is rare for homeowners and businesses to not purchase insurance, but many vacation properties and cabins in the forest are not covered by insurance. Insurance coverage is available and the cost is low, but some property owners choose not to purchase coverage. Many renters across Canada do not have insurance. The owner of the building may have coverage, but damage to the contents of an apartment are not included unless the renter purchases coverage. Moreover, insurance coverage is not always in place in First Nations communities, including many communities with a higher risk of wildland fire damage.
If a home or building covered by insurance is destroyed the insurance company will provide the funds to rebuild the home, replace the damaged contents, and cover additional living expenses during the rebuild. There may be caps and limits in specific policies, but the general intention is to restore the property owner back to where they were before the fire. Insurance companies have decades of experience responding to urban fire losses. Recent urban-wildland interface events differ in that there have been many, even thousands, of buildings destroyed by a single event. The recovery takes longer with such large losses as it is more difficult to find building supplies and qualified workers.
In terms of the dollars of payment most of the damage claims that insurance companies have paid for recent wildfire events involve homes that are destroyed and will take time to rebuild. In terms of the number of property owners paid by insurance, more than 90 percent of the claims involve relative minor damage that can be resolved quickly. This may include living expenses when an evacuation is ordered, smoke damage, replacing siding melted by the fire, or replacing a refrigerator and spoiled food.
Insurance companies will, over time, introduce incentives for property owners and communities that work to reduce the risk of wildland fire damage, and/or additional charges for those that fail to do so. Insurance companies seek to align the risk of loss with the prices and coverage that they offer. In circumstances with an extensive history, like urban fire and vehicle collisions, key risk factors affect the price and terms of coverage. Those with low risk pay less, while those demonstrating high risk must pay more to secure insurance coverage.
Most wildland fire insurance damage claims have taken place since 2016, so insurance companies at this time do not have enough information about how to link pricing and coverage with available measures of risk. For example, insurance companies are facing new challenges and need to answer questions such as are homes with an untreated wood shake roof more vulnerable to the risk of fire so they should pay more for coverage? If so, how much more should they pay? Insurance companies determine the prices they charge based on the features of the individual building and of the community where the building is located. Communities can invest in fire breaks and fuel reduction programs to reduce the risk of fire damage, and the cost of insurance should fall for all building owners. With time and with more loss events insurance companies will better link pricing and risk of loss from wildland fire.
Several decades without large wildland fire loss events in Canada served to reduce the price of insurance for property owners in the urban-wildland interface to the extent that there was virtually no additional charge by insurance companies for wildfire risk. This has changed with the recent loss events in Alberta and British Columbia. It is unclear if wildfire risk is affecting the price of insurance elsewhere in Canada, but there is an expectation that the cost of insurance will likely increase for those located in the wildland or the interface in Alberta and British Columbia.
The insurance industry has invested in research to better understand the risk of fire in the wildland, the risk of damage to structures in the interface, and actions that can reduce the risk of loss. In Canada, much of this research has been provided by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at Western University (ICLR). This includes workshops, publications, mapping, and field research. ICLR partnered with FireSmart and the NFPA to champion revisions to the building code to reduce the risk of fire damage for new homes. ICLR also partnered with FireSmart to provide outreach materials that insurers can use to promote risk reduction by existing homeowners and assess the risk of loss. ICLR also supported an examination of homes destroyed in Fort McMurray, and those rebuilt in Kelowna and Slave Lake to develop a ‘build back better’ program for insurance companies, and identify the characteristics of homes with low and high risk of burning.
The recent experience of large losses as a result of urban-wildland interface fires has resulted in increased insurance interest to understand the risk of loss and promote action to reduce the risk of damage.
First Nations Fire Protection
By Alice Cullingford–Acting Captain, Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services; Doctoral student Business Administration, William Howard Taft University
Similar to other Canadian communities, individual First Nations are responsible for their own fire protection. The department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), also known as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), invests roughly $26 million a year (INAC, 2015) to help First Nations on-reserve communities achieve the same level of fire protection “comparable to other communities of similar size, location, and services” (AANDC, 2010, p. 3). However, it is unclear if truly representative comparisons are being made. AANDC follows formula-based funding that takes into account the surrounding environment, remoteness, number of people, and amount of buildings on reserve (INAC, 2015). Some remote reserves face infrastructure issues that limit their access to a water supply that is adequate for proper fire extinguishment, while other communities may have robust infrastructure and fully stocked fire stations but lack trained personnel to staff emergency vehicles.
Furthermore, since the abolishment of the First Nations Financial Transparency Act in December of 2015, First Nations defined under the Indian Act are no longer required to provide to their members “audited consolidated financial statements and a Schedule of Remuneration and Expenses of chief and council” (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada [AANDC], 2015, para. 3). However, even prior to the halt of this legislation, the exact amount of federal monies spent on emergency management on reserves is unknown because expenses were simply not tracked (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2013). The expenditures were instead nested within, or spread out among various ministries and programs depending on how the expense was categorized (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2013). Between 2009 and 2013, according to unaudited records, no less than $448 million was allocated to First Nations emergency management activities that included fire protection (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2013).
While funding is intended for fire protection services such as the building and maintenance of fire stations, fire emergency vehicles, equipment, and on-going training, band chiefs and councils ultimately decide how to manage and allocate these funds (INAC, 2015). Spending is discretionary. As such, monies can be moved away from fire protection to areas that are considered a greater priority. Additionally, approximately $200,000 annual funding is given by AANDC to the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada for fire prevention, training, and awareness programs (INAC, 2015).
Even in the presence of funding and programs, fire protection services on reserve lack coordination (AANDC, 2010). Some First Nations have created their own fire departments (staffed mostly by volunteers) while others have opted to enter into formal fire protection agreements with nearby municipalities, and pay for these services out of their annual operating budget (INAC, 2015). If payment for fire protection is not rendered, there can be dire consequences: unpaid bills resulted in fire fatalities on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nations reserve in Saskatchewan when the neighbouring municipal fire department did not respond to a house fire because of on-going billing disputes (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC], 2015).
To give an example of how the cost of fire services can impact a First Nations reserve– especially a smaller reserve with no stable economic base–it can cost (depending on the signed fire service agreement) $400 an hour per fire truck call-out, $300 an hour for a water tanker truck, $30 an hour for the attendance of a fire chief, and $25 an hour per firefighter (Do, 2015). Call-outs generally have a three-hour minimum service fee and reserves may be billed even if the calls are false alarms. One First Nations community in which house fires happened on a regular basis simply chose to let structures burn to the ground if it was “going to burn safely” (Stienwandt, 2014, as cited in Puxley, 2014, para. 11). While this may have been done to save on fire service payments, this choice of action (or lack of fire suppression action) indicates a larger socio-economic issue at hand. Moreover, because the majority of First Nations are governed under the Indian Act, most provincial and federal jurisdictions are limited in the provision of comprehensive legislation and regulatory practices surrounding fire protection (Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada [AFAC], 2017).
There are currently no requirements pertaining to fire inspection regimes or building codes that are enforceable for homes on reserve (AANDC, 2010; AFAC, 2017; CBC, 2015a). In contrast, in the realm of police work, a number of First Nations communities have tripartite agreements. For example, in Ontario, the Ontario Provincial Police [OPP], with funding from the federal government, is mandated by the Ontario First Nations Policing Program agreement to step in when adequate policing isn’t provided in a community or reserve (Clairmont, 2006; OPP, 2014). However, there does not appear to be such agreements for minimum standards for fire protection between the various provinces and territories and First Nations. Mechanisms must be created to ensure that the government is accountable to First Nations as per signed agreements, and that band chiefs are accountable to their community members and the government from which they receive funds. It is of no use to be given funding if the capital is not used effectively, or if the community does not have the capacity to implement and place necessary programs into action.
The Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada is currently working to increase the coordination of fire and emergency services in Indigenous communities by implementing and Indigenous Federal Fire Marshal program; providing policy advice to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) in the areas of fire and emergency services; liaising with the Association of First Nations and regional Indigenous political groups on the development of fire policy; collaborating with other national fire organizations; providing support to regional and community Emergency Management Organizations, and; providing support to enhance emergency medical services for Indigenous communities (AFAC, 2017).
There are many federal fire protection frameworks that are currently in place to help support the need for safety and inclusion. Answers can be found by looking at pre-existing data available from other federal and international organizations provided that the information is applicable in a First Nations and Canadian context. There are no easy remedies, but sustainable solutions can be achieved through collaboration, understanding, and finding proactive ways to move forward with the ultimate understanding that success requires buy-in and ownership. Calls to action addressing governments, institutions, and agencies can lead the way in creating fire protection mandates and mechanisms that will have far-reaching positive impact on all Canadians and First Nations communities.
Climate and Wildland Fire
By Dr. Mike Flannigan, Professor, Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta
Fire activity is strongly influenced by four factors: fuels, climate–weather, ignition agents, and people (Flannigan et al., 2005). Fuel amount, type, continuity, structure, and moisture content are critical elements for fire occurrence and spread. Although the amount of fuel, or fuel load, and fuel distribution (vertical and horizontal) influence fire activity, fuel moisture largely determines whether fuels can sustain ignition and spread (Wotton et al., 2010), and has been found to be an important factor in the amount of area burned. Wildland fires are mostly started by people or lightning. In Canada, about 60 percent of all fires are started by people but are responsible for only 20 percent of the area burned. However, many of these people-caused fires are responsible for significant impacts; for example, the 2011 Slave Lake and the 2016 Fort McMurray fires were people-caused. People-caused fires are preventable.
Weather and climate, including temperature, precipitation, wind, and atmospheric moisture, are critical aspects of fire activity. Weather is one of the four factors influencing fire activity but it also influences two other factors, fuel and ignitions. Fuel moisture, which may be the most important aspect of fuel flammability, is a function of the weather, and weather and climate also in part determine the type and amount of vegetation (fuel) at any given location. Additionally, lightning is determined by the meteorological conditions. Weather arguably is the best predictor of regional fire activity for time periods of a month or longer. For example, Cary et al. (2006) found that weather and climate best explained modelled area burned estimated from landscape fire models compared with variation in terrain and fuel pattern. Although wind speed may be the primary meteorological factor affecting fire growth of an individual fire, numerous studies suggest that temperature is the most important variable affecting overall seasonal wildland fire activity, with warmer temperatures leading to increased fire activity (Gillett et al., 2004; Flannigan et al., 2005; Parisien et al., 2011). The reason for the positive relationship between temperature and regional wildland fire is three-fold. First, warmer temperatures may lead to a lengthening of the fire season with a longer snow-free period (Wotton & Flannigan, 1993; Westerling et al. 2006; Flannigan et al., 2013; Jolly et al., 2015). Second, warmer temperatures translate into more lightning activity that generally leads to increased ignitions (Price & Rind, 1994; Romps et al., 2014). Lastly, while all General Circulation Model (GCM) projections indicate considerable spatial and temporal variability in changes in summertime rainfall amounts (both increases and decreases), it has been demonstrated that increased evapotranspiration from fuels on and in the forest floor will more than offset any potential increases in precipitation and lead to drier fuels (Flannigan et al., 2016). This is consistent with the testing of the sensitivity of landscape fire models to climate change and other factors, Cary et al. (2006) found that area burned increased with higher temperatures. This increase was present even when precipitation increased, although the increase in area burned was greatest for the warmer and drier scenario. The bottom line is that we expect more fire in a warmer world.
The global climate is warming and this may have a profound and immediate impact on wildland fire activity. Some suggest that wildland fire activity has already increased due to climate change. For example, Gillett et al. (2004) suggest that the increase in area burned in Canada over the past four decades is due to human-caused increases in temperatures. Dennison et al. (2014) found regional increases in area burned over the western US since 1984. These increases in area burned in Canada and western US were occurring despite stable or increasing fire suppression effectiveness (modern decision support systems, satellites etc.) and increased coverage by fire suppression resources. While the level of absolute change in fire activity may be uncertain, particularly since many studies do not consider the increase in lightning activity (Romps et al., 2014), overall it is clear that, barring very significant changes in forest composition, fire activity in Canadian forests will increase with climate change.
Now is the time to act on the increasing fire risk. Canadian fire management agencies are among the best in the world, but wildfire risk and associated impacts are increasing as the climate changes and as more development occurs in our forests and wild lands. The insurance companies have historically made progress in better understanding and pricing fire risk but new challenges are emerging.
As a country we need to invest in research, development and innovation. Other countries, such as the US, Australia, Sweden and Portugal, have responded to catastrophic wildfire seasons with dedicated or targeted funding programs for wildfire research, as the more we know about wildfire, the better prepared we can be for the next catastrophic fire season. Connecting this research to practice would also require investments and instituting a culture of continuous learning as part of risk management practice.
The equity gap in fire response, prevention, and mitigation needs to be addressed.
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