Fort McMurray Fire Has Insurance CEO Warning People To Stop Building Where Disasters Happen

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OTTAWA — Decision-makers across the country need to start saying no to proposed developments on flood plains or near fire-prone boreal forests like those around Fort McMurray to prevent widespread damage from future natural disasters, says the head of the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

Too many cities have allowed homes and facilities to be built in areas where they could be destroyed by floods or fire, said Don Forgeron, the organization's president and CEO.

It's that kind of planning that put parts of Fort McMurray at risk when a raging wildfire swept through parts of the town earlier this month. The fire continues to burn, affecting communities and oilsands operations.

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Untouched homes are seen in the background as others destroyed by fire are seen in the foreground in the Abasands neighbourhood during a media tour of the fire-damaged city of Fort McMurray, Alberta, May 9, 2016. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward/AFP via CP)

The fire will be the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, costing insurers somewhere between $3 billion and $9 billion, Forgeron said. He said it is unlikely that insurance premiums across the country will go up as a result of the fire and that it's too early to say what will happen to rates in Alberta.

Forgeron said new developments are also stretching the abilities of aging infrastructure across the country, putting more people at risk from flooding.

"We've let far too many people build in far too many of these areas without any thought whatsoever to what happens,'' Forgeron said following a luncheon talk about adapting to climate change.

"If we're going to build in those areas — and I understand the pressures that some of our municipalities are (under) — you have to make sure that you take appropriate steps to mitigate that risk and eradicate that risk before you allow those developments to take place.''

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Fire support crew extinguish a wildfire that erupted outside Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada on May 11, 2016. (Photo: Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Forgeron said the federal government needs to strategically invest the green infrastructure money it has set aside in the budget to help communities combat the effects of climate change and reduce disaster-relief payments to provinces.

Between 1970, when the disaster relief fund was set up, and 1994, the federal government paid provinces on average about $54 million a year. In the ensuing 10 years, the costs went up to about $291 million a year, then $410 million a year in the 10 years after that.

The parliamentary budget watchdog predicted earlier this year that disaster payments will average $902 million for each of the next five years.

The Liberal budget in March set aside $518 million in green infrastructure money over the next two years to help cities and provinces pay for small projects and plan for larger projects aimed at adapting to climate change. The money is part of a $20 billion green infrastructure package promised over the next 10 years to pay for updates to aging water and sewer pipes along with helping communities deal with climate change.

Like the social infrastructure stream that funds affordable housing, recreational facilities and seniors residences, there are competing interests for the money.

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A smoky haze over Fort McMurray, Alta. (Photo: Jason Franson/CP)

"Not that ball fields and hockey rinks aren't important, they are,'' Forgeron said. "They're a very important part of life in Canada, but I think we need to move some of that funding into smart infrastructure investments.''

Over the last five years, the federal government spent $148.8 million to help communities prepare for climate change.

An evaluation of one part of that program found that much of the initial adaptation work focused on protecting infrastructure from floods and thawing permafrost. But the evaluation, recently posted to the Natural Resources Canada website, found that decision-makers across the country didn't think of climate change adaptation in their planning.

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