Twenty per cent.
That’s how many of the 2,579 homes destroyed by the Fort McMurray wildfire have been rebuilt in the two years since flames tore through the northern Alberta community.
Roughly half are in various stages of reconstruction and the neighbourhoods hardest hit by the fire have been transformed.
You might remember the images from shortly after the fire — block after block of nothing but foundations, ash and that white tackifier substance that made the devastated areas look even more eerie.
Now, subdivisions like Abasand look much like any new suburban development. Construction crews busily work on houses. New basements are dug. The only reminders of the fire are the charred tree stumps that surround the community.
Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott says he’s happy to see progress. The rebuild timeline is on track, although the work is far from done.
“We’re still going to see another two to three years before everybody should be back in their homes,” says Scott, who adds that pace is a bit of a disappointment.
“I’m never fully satisfied with where we’re at,” Scott says. “I always want to see everybody back in their houses. A lot of that is out of municipal control. People are still dealing with insurance companies. They’re dealing with contractors.”
Some of those insurance complaints are upsetting those who are still waiting to rebuild.
“Insurance is a bit of a swear word in this town,” Gareth Norris says.
Norris owns Paddy McSwiggins, an Irish pub. The building suffered major smoke damage during the fire.
WATCH: Fort McMurray residents still struggling two years after massive wildfire
His insurance company promised to clean it up. But several efforts to get rid of the smell and the contaminants didn’t work.
Norris wanted to gut the pub and replace the wood floors and drywall. He and his insurer are still battling. Norris just filed the paperwork to take the insurance company to court over the matter. He’s upset.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s almost criminal what they do. My gut feeling is they try to wait you out. You either go bankrupt or, if you’re a homeowner, you get foreclosed on,” he says.
As he waits for the end of his insurance fight, Norris is doing what he can to rebuild his pub. He just held a garage sale. Regulars and other community members bought donated items and other memorabilia from the bar. All the money goes to the rebuild effort.
Watch below: In 2017, as a way to mark one year since the Fort McMurray wildfire, Global News produced a special news presentation talking to those affected by the wildfire – from survivors to firefighters – about their challenges, how they’re marking the day and how they’re moving on.
Across town, Paul and Betty Blanchard tell a similar story.
They stand at the island in their nearly completed kitchen, anxiously awaiting moving in on May 18. However, they say the only reason they got this far is because of sacrifice and the Red Cross.
“Insurance is supposed to protect you. It didn’t protect us. It ruined us,” Paul Blanchard says.
The couple owned a mobile home on a traditional foundation with a basement. They say they paid premiums on two insurance policies, one on the basement, the other on the mobile home. After the fire, their adjuster said that wasn’t possible and they would only be paid out for one policy. That meant they would receive only half of what it would cost to replace their home.
They considered fighting. The Blanchards believe they have a strong case but they couldn’t afford the court costs and the time it would take to fight so they settled.
That only led to more problems. Their lender won’t let them rebuild something that is worth less than what they owe so the Blanchards supplemented their insurance money with money from the Red Cross. They also took the insurance money intended to replace their contents to help rebuild.
They now almost have a new home. It’s a little smaller and they don’t have anything to put inside it, but it’s done.
The two year ordeal has left the couple angry and exhausted.
“Insurance companies care nothing about you. Only your money. We found out the hard way,” Paul Blanchard says.
“I’m worn out. I’m done,” says a teary Betty Blanchard. “I just want to be back here with my neighbours and my friends and I don’t want to talk about insurance anymore.”
The Insurance Bureau of Canada is the country’s insurance industry association. A spokesperson says its members are doing everything they can to help those who lost homes get them back.
Rob de Pruis points out the fire prompted 60,000 insurance claims. At $3.8 billion of insurable losses, it is Canada’s costliest insured disaster. de Pruis says as of May 3, 95 per cent of those claims have been settled. The remainder are complex and can take time.
“Substantial progress has begun. We have seen thousands of homes that have started, but there’s not as many completed as we would have liked to have seen,” de Pruis says.
Scott would also like to see more progress.
“They should be settled by now,” he says. “This was an opportunity for insurance companies not to act like insurance companies and really show spirit and try to help people. I’ve met a lot of people who are going through real struggles with insurance companies.”