Friday, May 13, 2016

Opinion: Vancouver should learn from Fort McMurray’s tragedy Vancouver Courier May 12, 2016

I have been consumed with the tragic situation in Fort McMurray over the past two weeks.

I cannot comprehend what it must be like to evacuate an entire city as forest fires draw near, and watch neighbourhoods burn to the ground. That fact that only one person has been killed (in a car accident) is astounding and a testament to the people of the city.

I worked in Fort McMurray in late 2007 and 2008 as a real estate consultant to Keyano College, the local post-secondary institution. When I toured the city and nearby oil sands, it all seemed surreal.
From 1971 to 1981 the population of Fort McMurray more than quadrupled from 7,000 to 31,000. While I was there, you could see construction everywhere, with little evidence of good planning. Housing costs seemed outrageous, even when compared to Vancouver.

While I could see that the city was carved out of the forest, it never dawned on me that one day thousands of homes would be burned to their foundations by forest fires. Discussions are now beginning on what it will take to rebuild those portions of the city destroyed by fire. There is no doubt it is going to be a very complex and expensive proposition, especially since much of the ground could be contaminated.
My thoughts are with those trying to deal with this incredibly tragic situation. However, I am also thinking about those of us in Vancouver who could one day face a major natural disaster.
Most of us will not likely be affected by forest fires, although I suspect those living close to Pacific Spirit Park are questioning whether they face similar risks. However, we do face other fire risks, as well as the prospect of flooding and earthquakes.

Whenever I hear of natural disasters, I am always troubled by the number of people who did not have any insurance and were completely unprepared. When it comes to flooding, accord­ing to the Insur­ance Bureau of Canada, flood insurance is generally not avail­able to home­own­ers in B.C. because it would not be cost effec­tive.
However, those who live in flood-risk areas should prepare emergency kits for their home and cars, have a family emergency plan, keep important documents in watertight containers, and have a plan in place to move pets or live­stock. When it comes to earthquakes, similar measures should also be put in place. Furthermore, it is possible to purchase earthquake insurance. Do you know if your home policy will pay out in the event of an earthquake? You might want to take a look.
When it comes to general insurance, everyone living in a rental apartment and condominium should have their own policy. While the landlord or strata-council will have insurance in place, this does not cover individual tenants. Condominium owners should most definitely have their own policies since if a bathtub overflows, or an aquarium or waterbed leaks, they could face very significant damages from other owners.
As an architect and planner, one of my concerns is that many older rental apartment buildings in Vancouver are nearing the end of their useful life. They are more prone to the likelihood of fire, and will most certainly collapse in an earthquake.

The City of Vancouver should be encouraging the upgrade or replacement of these buildings, but sadly, in too many cases, the opposite is the true. In some highly populated Vancouver neighbourhoods, a ‘rate of change’ bylaw provision results in an effective moratorium on the demolition of apartment buildings. While this may seem reasonable in order to protect the tenants, these tenants face increased fire risks and future displacement as the building condition deteriorates.
Many landlords, planners, and urban economists believe the city should be encouraging the upgrading or replacement of these older buildings, especially when two or three times the number of apartments could be built on the site, and a tenant relocation plan put in place.

While this may seem like a minor issue compared to what the residents of Fort McMurray are currently facing, we should learn from their tragedy and take measures to prevent significant losses from future fires, floods or earthquakes, which could one day happen in our city.

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