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Residents still waiting for insurance payouts nearly three years after Fort McMurray fire

By: Jessica Mach on January 24, 2019

They’re like details out of a movie — and heavy handed ones at that.

Three homes in a triplex, the ones facing east and west looking fine, while the home in the middle lies unoccupied beneath its deformed vinyl siding.

Another home, which stands adjacent to a charred tree line, is so crooked that the couple living inside have to prop up their sleigh bed with rubber shims so that they don’t roll off in the middle of the night.

In yet another home, black mould secretly thrives in a child’s bedroom, behind the Frozen-themed wallpaper.

These are the actual circumstances that some Fort McMurray residents are still living in nearly three years after the largest wildfire in Alberta’s history. Why? These residents have been asking their insurance companies the same question.

An article published by Macleans on Wednesday detailed the struggles of multiple Fort McMurray homeowners who are still fighting to get what they consider the appropriate services and payouts for the severe damage their homes saw from the 2016 wildfires.

The homeowners’ stories show the insurance industry’s failure to come through with proper inspections and repairs after wildfire victims began submitting their claims. Residents described insurance inspections that failed to detect contamination, structural damage, and even asbestos — and private inspections commissioned by the residents themselves that did.

Maclean’s story centers around Rick Howard, a former insurance worker from just outside London, Ont. who has taken it upon himself to lead Fort McMurray homeowners through the claims process. So far, he’s helped at least four policyholders, whom he represented in dispute hearings over the fall. They won $3 million in aggregate from their insurance companies.

The 2016 wildfires were one of the most destructive natural disasters in Canadian history, causing an estimated $3.6 billion in damages, said the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC). In the months after the fires, insurers received about 60,000 claims from the region. IBC said that 95% of those claims were resolved as of last May.

“There’s certainly many, many files that were very successfully closed,” says Rob De Pruis, IBC’s director of consumer and industry relations in Edmonton.

But many residents are still in insurance limbo — some 900 cases are still outstanding, reported Maclean’s. And many of those who have had their claims formally resolved say that their payout was not enough to actually repair what they’ve lost. The man who owned the middle home in the triplex, for instance, was only given money for a wipe-down, new front siding, and a new front window and door.

Allan Brydges has not lived in the home since the fire, after which his own inspectors found contaminants. He also suspects structural damage.

Brydges’ insurance company has also stopped covering his rent, so he is paying rent for the apartment he is currently living in out of pocket — while still paying down the mortgage of the home that he believes is uninhabitable.

“They’re trying to force me into living back in my place without doing any of the necessary work,” he says of his insurer, the Co-Operators.

But the insurance company disagrees, describing the damages to Brydges’ home as “limited in nature.”

“In this instance we retained international experts to exam and evaluate the structural integrity of the building, the quality of the air and ultimately the safety of the occupants,” the Co-Operators wrote in a statement. “This world-renowned engineering firm utilized protocols developed post-9/11 to detect harmful chemicals. They provided an extensive independent third-party safety and quality analysis that informed our decision.”

The company also noted that it has paid out $270 million in claims related to the Fort McMurray fires.