Wildfire and Disaster Recovery
As a result of the devastating 2023 wildfires, affected local governments now have many important issues competing for their attention. Based on past disasters, there will likely be significant pressure on local governments to expedite approvals and permits to get the community back on track. Throughout this, it is crucial that local governments are aware of the importance of land surveys in the disaster recovery process.
The wildfire does not alter property boundary locations, but crucial survey evidence may be lost, which can lead to increased survey costs and uncertainty in boundary locations. Some of the typical property boundary evidence, such as fences, hedges, and buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Survey evidence, such as the iron posts that mark property corners, is at risk of being destroyed by the heavy machinery used in the recovery process.
The municipality is affected by these property boundary issues:
- Property owners may no longer know what the extent of their property is, increasing the risk of encroachment or bylaw non-compliance when they re-build.
- The municipality needs to know where property boundaries are located to support infrastructure recovery.
- The municipality can help mitigate the risk of encroachment and non-compliant development by requiring new land surveys as part of the post-wildfire building permit process.
Prior to clean-up activities it’s important to assess the risk of survey evidence being lost and determine if a survey should be conducted prior to clean-up to (1) tie in the evidence to a control network, (2) mark the evidence so that crews can try to protect it where possible, and (3) record measurements to the evidence on a registered plan. This approach was used in Lytton and resulted in easier, less costly surveys after clean-up and certainty for land owners.
Following clean-up activities, individual lot owners can hire a land surveyor to re-establish their property boundaries or it may be appropriate for a larger-scale survey to be completed instead of individual lot surveys. A few options for surveys after clean-up include:
- Individual land surveys. Property owners directly hire a land surveyor to re-establish their property boundaries. This option can be more expensive for land owners, particularly for the first surveys, and there is potential that there may be inconsistency in boundary re-establishment if there is significant loss of boundary evidence and a survey was not conducted prior to clean-up activities.
- Large-scale re-surveys to re-set missing posts and provide certainty to existing parcel boundary locations. Land surveyor is hired by the local government and there are options for funding, including the potential for emergency recovery funding.
- Special Surveys, Part 23 Land Title Act. Requires ministerial approval. Provides the most certainty going forward as the plan becomes the official survey for the properties, replacing previous surveys.
- Large-scale posting plan, Section 68 Land Title Act. The plan is not an official survey for the properties, it is a record of posts placed.
- Surveys supporting substantial redevelopment of affected areas (changes to boundary locations). This option is a consideration if the existing parcel layout does not meet the needs for re-building.
- Municipal Replotting Act
The Surveyor General is in communication with land surveyors and will support efficient, consistent response. Local governments may directly contact local land surveyors to discuss the options for surveys or contact the Surveyor General.
- Land surveyors can assess the local affects on the survey fabric, specific risks and potential solutions.
- The Surveyor General can support land surveyors, encouraging a consistent approach by all land surveyors working in an area, reducing duplication of effort and potential for conflicting boundary resolution.
Land surveys of property conducted after the wildfire will bring clarity to land owners on their property boundaries, allowing them to rebuild with confidence.
Lessons on post-disaster recovery can be learned from the following case study from the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. The lessons have been successfully applied to saving survey evidence following the 2021 wildfire in Lytton BC. In Lytton, evidence was surveyed before clean-up activities and any missing primary parcel corners were re-set after clean-up. Survey plans of the affected area were filed in the Land Title Registry.
Post-disaster case study: Fort McMurray Wildfire, 2016:
- While the wildfire of 2016 did not damage survey infrastructure in Fort McMurray, the use of heavy machinery to clear rubble and remove debris caused major disturbance and destruction of survey monuments.
- The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo commissioned an official re-survey to provide boundary clarity after the wildfire.
- It was not expected that rebuilding should have to wait for the official re-survey to take place; people wanted to rebuild their homes as quickly as possible.
- Before the official re-survey began, approximately 400 building permits had already been issued.
- While some property owners hired a licensed Alberta Land Surveyor to define their property boundaries, many others were able to obtain permits without a legal survey.
- The destruction of survey evidence during the recovery, and subsequent rebuilding without a legal survey, caused confusion as to the correct location of property boundaries and led to instances of bylaw non-compliance and encroachment.
- Lessons learned:
- It is critical to ensure that legal surveys are completed by professional land surveyors before re-development takes place.
- Large scale re-surveys or replotting is time-intensive, and while potentially necessary, it is unlikely that redevelopment will wait for these before proceeding.
Please contact the Surveyor General at email@example.com if you require further information.