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A year after the Tantallon wildfire: Are we building back better?

June 5, 2024 | By: Amanda Dean, Vice-President, Ontario and Atlantic Regions, IBC
A year after the Tantallon wildfire: Are we building back better?

In the spring of 2023, thousands of Nova Scotians had their lives disrupted, and hundreds had their property damaged or destroyed during the region’s unprecedented wildfire that started May 28 and lasted for a week.

Residents of Tantallon, part of the Halifax Regional Municipality, were the hardest hit, with an estimated $165 million in insured damage, according to estimates from Catastrophe Indices and Quantification Inc.

More than 16,000 people were forced to flee their homes and businesses. Officials have since confirmed that the wildfire either destroyed or damaged at least 200 properties, including 151 homes. At the same time, residents in the Municipalities of Shelburne and Barrington were impacted by a separate wildfire, known as the Barrington Lake Wildfire. In the resilient spirit of Atlantic Canadians, communities and their insurers worked together to rebuild and move forward. As of six months since the start of the Tantallon fire, insurers had closed over 80% of the related claims.

However, this disaster raises an important question: How resilient is Canada in the face of ever-increasing natural catastrophes?

Recent statistics suggest Canada isn’t adequately resilient to more frequent extreme weather events as a result of climate change. Few provinces were spared from wildfire during last year’s record-breaking season. Over 6,600 wildfires burned more than 18 million hectares across the country. Just as concerning, these fires released more than one billion tonnes of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, equivalent to the annual emissions of the global airline industry.

By the end of 2023, the year’s severe weather events totalled over $3.1 billion in insured damage across the country, highlighting the financial costs of a changing climate – costs that are borne by taxpayers, governments and insurers. 

The federal government has warned that 2024 will likely see another record-setting wildfire season and potentially a significant hurricane season. Unfortunately, the housing plan announced in its 2024 Budget lacked substantive detail on avoiding building new homes in high-risk areas or on achieving resilience targets set out in the National Adaptation Strategy.

Extreme weather events have serious impacts on everyone in Canada and can be especially devastating for families and vulnerable populations. To protect Canada’s economy and the health and wellbeing of its residents, all orders of government must go on the offensive to cut emissions but more importantly, must play strong defence to make our communities more resilient to natural disasters.

IBC has identified several actions that governments can take to help the Atlantic provinces, and all of Canada, alleviate the immediate concerns about climate-driven severe weather losses:

  1. Support the national low-cost flood insurance program for high-risk households, slated to launch in 2025. Flooding is Canada’s greatest climate-related risk, with more than 1.5 million homes – 10% of the current housing stock – built in areas at high risk of coastal, riverfront or urban flooding.

  2. Avoid building new homes in high-risk flood and wildfire zones, ensuring we are adequately addressing the housing supply challenge while not placing households in danger. Encourage proper land-use planning to keep new developments away from hazardous zones. Encourage nature-based solutions, such as protecting wetlands and adopting fire-smart forestry and agricultural practices.

  3. Improve emergency response efforts by developing prevention and mitigation plans with communities, funding emergency services, ensuring provincial warning systems are in place and supporting communities after a disaster.

  4. Invest in funding to support mandatory resilience measures for all new buildings and, eventually, existing buildings in high-risk zones.

  5. Commit to building back better after severe weather events and strengthening building codes.

  6. Invest in climate-resilient infrastructure – both nature-based and built – to reduce risks such as flooding, coastal erosion, wildfire and extreme heat.

Almost one year after the Tantallon disaster, people across the country in Fort McMurray once again experienced wildfires on the edge of their community, prompting the need to evacuate. Every year, new and often historic wildfire, flooding, extreme heat and storm events, exacerbated by climate change, severely impact communities. The question is not “will this happen again?” but “when and where?”

While reducing emissions is critical to addressing climate change, we also need to build resilience and preparedness into every aspect of our communities and culture. Repeatedly, we have seen that Canada is not prepared for the climate impacts we are already experiencing, let alone the impacts to come. 

About This Author

Amanda is known for her consensus-building leadership and strategic stakeholder engagement. As Vice-President for Insurance Bureau of Canada’s Ontario and Atlantic regions, she advocates and is responsible for eliciting positive change and sound public policy on key priorities for the provinces’ private home, auto and business insurance sector.

Amanda also directs stakeholder and member initiatives and represents member companies’ concerns while collaborating with all orders of government on shared and strategic industry objectives such as sustainable auto insurance, balanced regulation and adaptation to severe weather.

Before joining IBC, Amanda worked closely with the Deputy Premier of Nova Scotia (and former minister responsible for Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal) and the Minister of National Defence. Her responsibilities included communications, issues management and intergovernmental relations.

Amanda holds a bachelor’s degree in public relations from Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU), a master’s degree in business administration from Saint Mary’s University and a Chartered Insurance Professional (CIP) designation. She is Past Board Chair of Mount Saint Vincent University’s Board of Governors and a member of the Board for the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC). An avid community leader, Amanda has volunteered with Symphony Nova Scotia, has served on the YWCA Halifax Board of Directors, the board of directors of Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR), and has lectured on government relations at MSVU.