Faster, Cheaper Rebuild Produces New Risks After Fort McMurray Wildfires
Fort McMurray is failing to enforce its own bylaws, and residents are missing the opportunity to build more resilient homes and neighbourhoods, as the city races to recover from last year’s devastating wildfires, according to a KPMG assessment released last week.
The inescapable conclusion is that Fort Mac “is not rebuilding in a way that would best shield the city from natural disasters such as floods and fires because of a push to ensure the recovery is done quickly and cheaply,” the Globe and Mail reports.
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The wildfires forced 88,000 people to evacuate last year, destroyed 2,600 housing units in 1,595 buildings, and produced nearly $4 billion in insurance claims, the Globe notes. Local officials promised to “build back better” when the three to four-year reconstruction process kicked off last June. But that goal “has been trumped by a push to contain costs and speed up the recovery,” the report said. KPMG recommended tax rebates from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, “so folks rebuilding can afford to build more resilient structures,” notes Calgary-based reporter Carrie Tait.
In the hard-hit Waterways neighbourhood, KPMG found that the municipality allowed four homeowners to rebuild on a high-risk slope after passing a bylaw to buy them out, and approved reconstruction in a potential flood zone without introducing mitigation measures. “This is an example of where the need for timely recovery may have been prioritized over the principle of building back better,” the consultants wrote.
Another key problem is that insurance policies and other programs were capped at the dollars Fort Mac residents would need to rebuild to pre-fire conditions—so that “residents would be on the hook for costs associated with rebuilding in a safer location or purchasing fire-resistant products,” the Globe notes. “This financial burden represents a significant barrier to residents, as many are unwilling or unable to pay out-of-pocket for upgraded and less flammable materials,” the report stated.
KPMG also found that the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo may have fallen short in implementing the FireSmart Alberta wildfire management program, designed to prepare for and mitigate fire risk. “Vegetation management, education, and planning disciplines of FireSmart may not have been implemented consistently or sustained over time,” the report noted, though some relevant work may have been done outside the city’s $290,000 provincial grant.