Fire Fighting in Canada

Uncategorized Emergency Management
Climate change adaptation pays dividends

January 1, 1970 
By Glenn McGillivray


It’s mid-February in Canada and there’s wildfire smoke in the air in BC. Not like there was this past summer, but it’s there, and that’s disconcerting.

It’s yet another anomaly on the path to an entirely different world.

Deniers will have you believe that four guys are working on climate science and one of them forgot to carry a two and, consequently, all the science on climate change is wrong.

The reality is that hundreds, thousands of scientists are working on climate change over many disciplines and the conclusions are irrefutable: We’ve essentially busted our climate and it’s not going back to where it was. And the impacts are profound.

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Last year in Canada, 23 catastrophes (i.e. events of $30 million in insurance claims or higher) were declared by Catastrophe Indices and Quantification Inc. (CatIQ), the company that tracks insured catastrophes for anyone who is interested. The previous record was 15 events (2017 and 2022 were tied). July and August 2023 alone saw more declared catastrophes than Canada has previously seen in an entire year.

About $1 billion of the $3.1 billion (preliminary) in insurance claims racked up last year from severe events were from wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes and blanketed major North American cities with acrid smoke. Other events included flooding, hail and tornadoes.

The result was death and injury, illness (both physical and mental), property damage, disruption and all around grief.

The good news is that Canada is one of the only countries in the world with a national climate adaptation strategy, which outlines, among other things, actions that can be taken to protect Canadians from flooding, wildfire and extreme heat.

The bad news is that no serious funding is forthcoming for the strategy.

This is a shame on several levels, not the least of which is the fact that disaster risk reduction pays back in spades

Our work at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction indicates that investments in disaster mitigation reap significant rewards.

For instance, we identified that the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Climate Resilient Buildings and Core Public Infrastructure (CRBCPI) program, which includes such things as the National Guidelines for the Flood Resilience of Buildings and new Canadian Highway Bridge Design Code, will ultimately save Canadians an estimated $4.7 billion per year at an estimated added construction cost of $400 million per year, for a savings of almost $12 per $1 invested.

We determined that NRC’s National Guide for Wildland Urban Interface Fires could save Canadian society up to $34 for every $1 spent to make new homes resilient to wildfires. The total includes a $10 to $1 savings in reduced fire damage to buildings, $8 to $1 savings for life safety and avoided PTSD, $7 to $1 savings in reduced personal property damage, and $7 to $1 savings in lower insurance premiums.

Our work on impact resistant shingles to guard against hail damage returns a benefit to cost of $8 for every $1 invested, reducing the chance of hail damage by up to 15 times and the cost by half.

In our latest work, we have determined that $1 invested in protecting new Canadian homes from high wind avoids $6 in future damages, on average. More specifically, for a 1% increase in construction cost (about $3,600) we can reduce very severe, very dangerous wind damage to homes. This includes total loss of roof components as has been experienced in places like Barrie, Ontario and the Ottawa area in recent years.

On top of benefit/cost analysis, there is a growing body of work which indicates that homes that contain disaster mitigation measures resell at higher prices than comparable homes without. These measures may include, but aren’t limited to, hurricane shutters, tornado safe rooms, wildfire and earthquake retrofit features and impact resistant roof cover.

The frustrating thing is that in all cases – basement flooding, extreme heat, wildfire, extreme wind and hail – we know precisely what to do to make Canadian homes more resilient. We know the costs and we know the benefit/cost.

Yet we continue to kick the can down the road.

Glenn McGillivray is managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and adjunct professor of disaster and emergency management at York University.


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