Fort McMur­ray wild­fire re­build gain­ing mo­men­tum as hur­dles cleared

Cape Breton Post - - Business - BY IAN BICKIS

A long-de­layed build­ing boom in Fort McMur­ray is ramp­ing up as home­own­ers, in­sur­ers, con­trac­tors, and of­fi­cials in the Al­berta city clear hur­dles that hin­dered re­con­struc­tion af­ter the dev­as­tat­ing wild­fire last May.

While many res­i­dents and busi­nesses had hoped to break ground last year, chal­lenges ranged from the amount of de­bris that had to be re­moved to the vol­ume of per­mits and in­sur­ance claims that needed to be pro­cessed.

Ef­forts to re­build some of the more than 2,500 dwellings de­stroyed were also de­layed as the risks and costs of win­ter con­struc­tion meant many de­cided to put off the work.

“It’s been a slow start, but it’s re­ally start­ing to mo­tor,’’ says lo­cal builder Gilles Huizinga, who’s also pres­i­dent of the UDI Wood Buf­falo de­vel­oper as­so­ci­a­tion.

Con­struc­tion started on a record 96 de­tached houses in Jan­uary, while the 92 in Fe­bru­ary were not far be­hind the record for the month set at the end of a 2007-08 build­ing frenzy.

March saw a drop in de­tached hous­ing starts to 34. But with semi-de­tached and row hous­ing in­cluded, there’s al­ready 282 units un­der­way this year. And the city has so far is­sued about 650 build­ing per­mits rep­re­sent­ing some 900 hous­ing units, a clear sign of much more con­struc­tion to come.

Nat­u­ral dis­as­ters gen­er­ally trig­ger re­build­ing booms, but Fort McMur­ray will see more ac­tiv­ity than most as the costli­est nat­u­ral disas­ter in Cana­dian his­tory. The Con­fer­ence Board of Canada ex­pects about $5.3 bil­lion will be spent be­cause of the fire, in­clud­ing $1.2 bil­lion for re­build­ing and re­pair­ing homes and another $850 mil­lion for restor­ing busi­nesses.

The spend­ing — and the 9,000 jobs the Con­fer­ence Board says will be cre­ated this year — has at­tracted a wave of con­trac­tors and trades­peo­ple to the city, prompt­ing some lo­cal builders to raise ques­tions about their re­li­a­bil­ity.

“All of the sud­den you have a hun­dred builders show­ing up in Fort McMur­ray,’’ said Greg Walsh, re­build team leader at Qual­ico Homes. “A lot of them don’t have a clue what they’re do­ing. They’ve never built any­thing here.’’

Walsh also said he’s con­cerned that some new­com­ers are giv­ing in­sur­ance com­pa­nies low-ball quotes, which could lead to prob­lems.

The in­sur­ance in­dus­try, how­ever, does ex­ten­sive screen­ing of con­trac­tors to avoid such prob­lems, said Bill Adams, vice-pres­i­dent of Western and Pa­cific Re­gion for the In­sur­ance Bureau of Canada (IBC).

“All in­sur­ers have a fairly so­phis­ti­cated qual­i­fi­ca­tion process they go through in vet­ting the con­trac­tors that they’ve put for­ward,’’ said Adams.

Huizinga noted that in the wake of the disas­ter, many home­own­ers are in a state of vul­ner­a­bil­ity and urged they seek third-party advice be­fore sign­ing ma­jor con­tracts, and as head of the lo­cal UDI he’s been giv­ing advice when he can.

The builder said in most cases con­struc­tion is go­ing well, with the most com­mon is­sues stem­ming from ques­tions about whether things like fenc­ing, sod, a de­tached garage or deck are cov­ered by in­sur­ance and the agree­ment with the con­trac­tor.

One of the clos­est par­al­lels to the Fort McMur­ray disas­ter was the dev­as­tat­ing wild­fire of 2011 in Slave Lake, where Mayor Tyler War­man said some home­own­ers in his town did run into se­ri­ous prob­lems in re­build­ing.

“There was a mi­nor­ity that had some hor­ri­ble sto­ries where the house isn’t fin­ished, con­trac­tor’s gone with the money, and no one’s call­ing them back,’’ said War­man.

He said some con­trac­tors were clearly a little sus­pect, while oth­ers took on more than they could han­dle and ran into cash-flow prob­lems as the town saw a “dra­matic in­crease’’ in the price per square foot to build.

IBC’s Adams said the Slave Lake is­sue came about be­cause un­ap­proved con­trac­tors were over-promis­ing to peo­ple ea­ger to get back into their homes.

To re­duce a re­peat of con­flicts, the provin­cial gov­ern­ment has re­quired home­builders to pro­vide a war­ranty since 2014. Af­ter the Fort McMur­ray fire, the province also re­quired that builders dis­close key information like whether they have any con­vic­tions or on­go­ing dis­putes.

So far, about 180 home­builders have reg­is­tered, with only about half stat­ing that they’ve build a home in Al­berta since early 2014 in the op­tional part of the form.

Shel­don Ger­main, a Fort McMur­ray coun­cil­lor on the Wood Buf­falo Re­cov­ery Com­mit­tee, said the city’s go­ing to have co­or­di­na­tors and in­spec­tors in ev­ery neigh­bour­hood to make sure con­struc­tion is to code.

He said they’ve also hosted about 50 ses­sions for home­own­ers to ask ques­tions, as well as one-on-one meet­ings to help fig­ure out is­sues with con­trac­tors and in­sur­ance.

The coun­cil­lor said there is a need to bal­ance safety with speed as peo­ple are ea­ger to get on with their lives. He also noted the re­build process is never go­ing to be seam­less.

“There’s no per­fect in re­cov­ery,’’ Ger­main said.

CP PHOTO

Gilles Huizinga, pres­i­dent of the lo­cal Ur­ban Devel­op­ment In­sti­tute, and a home­builder with Sedge­wood Homes with newly built homes in the Tim­ber­lea area that was de­stroyed by wild­fires last year in Fort McMur­ray, Alta. Thurs­day, April 20.

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