Long after the fire, Fort McMurray residents are still battling insurance companies

But they’ve got an unlikely ally—a savvy, ’unpaid representative’ who is giving beleaguered homeowners a fighting chance against stingy insurers
Rick Howard stand’s in a play room in Jessica Fudge’s house in Fort McMurray, Alberta on Thursday, November 29, 2018. Black mold was found in the home after the fires, along with other damage. Howard has stepped in to advocate for homeowners who are still seeing effects from the wildfire and who aren’t happy with the response from their insurance companies. Photographed by Amber Bracken

Nothing speaks to the fallibility of human judgment like the caprice of the insurance adjuster, and in recent years there has been no playground so broad for the adjuster’s inconstancy and appetite for penny-pinching than the burned-down city of Fort McMurray, Alta.

Go, if you can, and visit 191 Athabasca Cres., the modest middle home in a 1970s-era triplex that survived the wildfires of May 2016, one of the few structures in the neighbourhood that did. Because each of the three homes that made up the triplex was covered by a different insurance policy, today that sorry-looking middle home is sandwiched on either side by what-could-have-beens.

The house on the triplex’s west end, for example, the insurer elected to tear down entirely, perhaps because of the presence of asbestos in the place. Now a brand-new, entirely detached and handsome single-family house stands there instead. On the east end, meanwhile, the insurance company chose to strip the building to the studs then rebuild it from the inside out. It looks pretty good.

But 191 Athabasca, in the middle, is still in the same low state it was 2½ years ago: the vinyl siding, deformed from the heat of the fires, hangs off here and there like old bandages. In its case, the insurance company, the Co-operators, decided all that was required was to replace the front siding, put in a new front window and door, then pay for a good thorough wipe-down inside.

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What of the asbestos and other contaminants in the other two homes? The Co-operators did not find any. What of the likely structural damage caused by the wildfire’s heat, which now shows up as cracks in the walls? Not to worry, the adjuster said. The Co-operators announced that the house was ready to be lived in.

Allan Brydges, 191’s owner, has been dining out on the story ever since. Friends pop by to take a gander at the house and its two neighbours and to make sure the tale is true. A visit confirms everything: the place still stands there like a rotten tooth between two hale and healthy molars. “It’s mind-blowing,” says Brydges. “It makes no sense.”

Brydges, 43, a heavy-equipment operator at Syncrude’s nearby oil sands operation, hasn’t lived here since the fire. His wife, who is expecting their first child, and whom he would like to move up to Fort McMurray, has remained instead in Lethbridge, Alta., kept away by the contaminants he says his own experts found in the home.

In July 2017, the Co-operators stopped covering his rent, and he’s now paying for his apartment and his mortgage on a home he believes remains uninhabitable. “They’re trying to force me into living back in my place without doing any of the necessary work,” he says of the insurer.

In a statement to Maclean’s, the Co-operators said: “We feel it is important to note that we are giving this claim the same high level of attention that we give to all of our clients” and that “the health, safety and well-being of our clients is always our top priority.” While it said it could not discuss the specifics of Brydges’s case, it called the damages to the home “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. 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.” It noted also that it has paid out $270 million in claims overall for the Fort Mac fire. “No single approach is appropriate for all,” said Alastair Campbell, vice-president of claims with the company, before saying that the matter is now the subject of a provincially mandated dispute resolution process initiated by the policy holder and that he could not comment further.

Both of Brydges’s neighbours’ houses were rebuilt, but his insurer saw no need for major repairs. (Amber Bracken)

Last year, Brydges contacted Rick Howard, an out-of-towner he’d heard was intimately familiar with the insurance claims process. Howard calls himself a “claims strategist” and has a ready grin and a policeman’s moustache. He lives far away from Fort Mac, just outside London, Ont., and had never visited until last year, when he began reading about the ongoing plight of some policy holders there 10 months after the wildfire. That was when he began to work for locals as—in his words—an “unpaid representative.”

“Having Rick on my side has definitely been beneficial—there’s a lot to take in from the insurance side I don’t quite get,” Brydges says. “He knows all the ins and outs.”

He ought to. Howard, 55, worked in the insurance business for some 30 years until leaving in 2013, and he’s the son of a long-time insurance man. What he has found in Fort McMurray, he says, has left him disgusted. Some policy holders haven’t received compensation for even the most obvious consequences of the fire, and when pushed, insurance companies in many cases force policy holders to bring them to court or into dispute resolution. “I don’t think they’re aware of what bad faith is,” Howard says of many of the insurers he’s dealt with in Fort McMurray.

Howard has found some success championing his clients’ claims at the dispute hearings. Over the course of several days in the fall, for example, Howard represented four policy holders to whom the insurance companies wanted to pay virtually no money at all; an umpire decided in their favour to the tune of nearly $3 million in aggregate. A good chunk of that money went toward pulling contamination from homes—contamination the insurers frequently did not look for.

“My view is, when you’re talking about the Fort Mac fires, it would be insane not to presume that there’s contamination all over the place,” the umpire in one of these disputes, Calgary lawyer Joe Oppenheim, told the insurance company’s rep at one point, adding: “And if an insurer wants to displace that presumption, they have to get out there and they’ve got to do the proper testing at the time they’re supposed to.”

Oppenheim was responding to an argument Howard had laid out about the insurer’s obligation to test promptly.

Who would know to do that?

“We won—because of Rick,” says Bev Pilgrim, a 39-year-old health care professional who received an additional $221,000 from her insurer after Howard represented her family in dispute resolution; the insurer did not want to replace her sunken driveway and walkway and a damaged waterproof membrane, the repair of which will require that her foundation be dug out and inspected. “That man fell from above,” says Pilgrim, adding: “There’s no book on what to do when your city burns down.”

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Howard says a lack of insurance literacy is the problem. The claims process can be opaque for many policy holders.

Not everyone in Alberta is a fan. Howard says he has twice been accused of acting as an unlicensed adjuster; the Alberta Insurance Council, which handles such matters, has cleared him in both cases. That’s because he takes no payment from clients, though he does receive support from two local contracting firms to help him with airfare and accommodations in Fort Mac. He insists he has no business relationship with the contractors, who might stand to gain from his work.

It’s also the case that plenty has gone right in Alberta for lots of policy holders. The Insurance Bureau of Canada calls the 2016 fire the costliest insured event in Canadian history, with estimated damages of $3.6 billion. Insurers fielded some 60,000 claims in Fort McMurray in the months after the wildfire. As of May, the IBC says, 95 per cent of those claims were resolved. “There’s certainly many, many files that were very successfully closed,” says Rob De Pruis, of IBC’s Edmonton office.

But earlier this year, as the two-year deadline set by provincial legislation for insurance claims approached, news reports suggested that some 900 were still outstanding. Soon after, the Alberta government convinced insurers that they had better grant a year’s extension. The new deadline is now coming up again—in May—and Howard says too many policy holders are being re-victimized by the insurance process.

Howard appears mild-mannered over a coffee, but he’s an insurance maverick, one whom the company men he meets while representing clients often can’t get their head around. He tells them upfront that unlike them, he’s not getting paid for this work. So what’s he up to? “You can’t be doing this for your health,” one man at a dispute hearing suggests.

“I guess you could say it’s a hobby,” says Howard, who now works as a data analyst. “I’ve given up golf for this. If you met the people that I meet, you’d do it too.”

One couple he’s helping, Bertha and Roger Theriault—59 and 70 respectively—must prop their mahogany sleigh bed up on rubber shims that Roger bought from Canadian Tire, lest Bertha roll out in the middle of the night. They say that Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Co. denies that their home, located very near one of the city’s charred tree lines in the Wood Buffalo area, was knocked askew in the fire—either by the water-bombing designed to contain the blaze or due to the explosions and heat that shook or unmoored other buildings here. Wawanesa claims the defects are unrelated to the fire.

Entering their bedroom is like embarking on the first gently rolling slope atop a ski piste. Bertha, a former figure skater originally from Jasper, B.C., first twigged to the issue when she found herself repeatedly straightening a picture that hung over the couple’s bed.

On the day the wildfire arrived, Bertha had prepared loaves of bread for the oven and put ribs in the slow cooker. When she and Roger returned some four weeks later, she says they found a pink notice on her door indicating her house might be unsafe. Inside, the bread was baked and the ribs were cooked, there was a smell of smoke and the carpets were soaked. “We had headaches within minutes,” Bertha says. They phoned Wawanesa and eventually managed to get new doors and windows, new shingles and new siding and some money so Roger could plaster and paint the cracks in the wall. “Everything we got—because we did get some—we had to fight,” says Roger.

And still the home tips anarchically to the street. “They did the outside—they hid everything,” says Bertha, who despite efforts not to, often bursts into tears.

Roger, a construction coordinator at Suncor Energy, has been a Wawanesa client since 1969. “You tend to think you have a relationship,” he says in the living room of the home, where he and Bertha still live.

Bertha says that Wawanesa has told her their claim is closed. Howard will soon file a claim with Wawanesa on the Theriaults’ behalf. In a statement to Maclean’s, Wawanesa said: “We take our obligation to protect the privacy and interests of our policy holders very seriously. For this reason, we feel publicly commenting on the adjudication and negotiation process of any particular claim risks undermining that obligation. We are committed to addressing and resolving concerns of our policy holders.” Though it would not discuss the particulars of this case, it noted that policy holders can seek recourse through the Wawanesa ombudsman or via dispute resolution.

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Another of Howard’s clients, Jessica Fudge, 26, asked her insurance company, TD Insurance, to be especially careful assessing her house, a mobile home in the Timberlea area, because her daughter, then three years old, suffers from asthma. Instead, the home received what Fudge describes as cursory testing. TD said all that was needed was a “light cleaning.” Then it invited the family to return.

Six months after the fire, Fudge’s daughter’s health was deteriorating badly: she was on multiple medications, her lips would turn blue, and when she slept her breathing “sounded like someone sawing wood,” often interrupted by gasps for breath, she says. Soon her health had grown so bad that doctors contemplated respiratory surgery. Then Fudge found black mould behind the drywall in her daughter’s playroom, with its Frozen-themed wallpaper—a consequence, she and Howard say, of the heavy water-bombing and other fire-containment measures that rocked the neighbourhood.

Fudge rushed her daughter out and moved her into her parents’ home, where she recovered within days (she is now almost entirely medication-free). They have never returned to the home. She says the mould and heavy-metal contamination her own testing uncovered keeps the family away.

In a statement on the Fudge matter, TD Insurance said: “All our Fort McMurray customers have received coverage for their claims, and 99 per cent of all reported claims are closed.” In Fudge’s case, “We are observing the government-mandated process followed by the industry and are committed to reaching resolution. We are very proud of the support provided to our customers and the community of Fort McMurray.” TD also pointed to its actions following the fire, including waiving deductibles for all residential and auto claims in Fort McMurray, covering temporary accommodations and meals through the duration of the evacuation order and sending 200 employees and two mobile response units into the city to help customers.

Jessica Fudge found black mould in her asthmatic daughter’s bedroom; her insurer suggested ‘light cleaning.’ (Amber Bracken)

During a recent tour of Fudge’s vacant home, she observed that all her window seals were shot due to the heat of the blaze, pointing out the mould growing in them as a consequence (dispute resolution will now require the insurance company to pay for these). The atmosphere here, as in many of the homes Howard visits, is heavy, oppressive and often causes mild headaches. Within eyeshot through her kitchen windows lies the park and jungle gym where she often took her daughter to play: the cylindrical red plastic slides are still melted from the fire; kids no longer use them.

The stubbornness of insurers is, in Howard’s telling, inexhaustible. One company suggests it may not be responsible for covering fire-related contamination because there is no evidence the flames actually travelled across the property (never mind the ambient heat and smoke, and the dumping of water and toxic fire retardants from above).

Some of the apparent damage is intangible—such as the “putrid” smell that 47-year-old Tracy Harris says has sickened her and her family and pushed them from their stately 3,000-sq.-ft home in the Saprae Creek area. Two and a half years after the fire, the air inside the home is heavy, with a taste like burnt rubber. Across town, Ginette Lashta, 31, recalls returning home after the evacuation to confront a wall of bad air inside—“like burnt hair,” she says. It did not go away, and despite their best efforts, Lashta and her husband could not convince the insurer to act.

“The insurance battles felt like a full-time job,” says Lashta, a stay-at-home mother. “When we lie down in bed at night we don’t have conversation,” she adds. “We just talk about insurance—and you only have so many words a day.”

Howard has travelled from Ontario to Calgary, Edmonton and Fort Mac half a dozen times in the past 18 months to assess cases and represent dozens of policy holders at dispute hearings. In those tribunals, Howard sounds like Matlock—methodical and steely—and there is something personal, even intimate, about the way he champions those he helps.

According to Howard, conflicts of interest are everywhere because the dispute-resolution system asks the parties at impasse to suggest the names of adjudicators. In December, one of Howard’s clients sought to have his umpire dropped after it emerged he was employed by a contracting company that had a business relationship with his insurer.

“When you propose three of your best friends to be the umpire—or your boss, or your co-worker—it becomes a little ridiculous,” says Howard. But then again, so much of what’s happened in Fort Mac over the past two years is just that.