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June 28, 2019

Wildfire Season: ‘The New Abnormal’?

Summary:

The number of wildfires has remained relatively constant, but damage has dramatically increased. Can risk mitigation techniques help?

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

Each year, California burns. With another record wildfire season come and gone, each new season seems worse than the last. While mitigation against firestorms is tricky, evolving technologies like fire-fighting foam—used for pretreatment and suppression sprayed around a property or on combustible building materials—can help businesses avoid peril and keep doors open as long as possible.

In 2018, major fires stretched from the Oregon border in Northern California south to the Los Angeles suburbs – a distance of over 685 miles (1,100 km). The worst was the Camp Fire (so called because of its outbreak on Camp Creek Road in Butte County), which broke a 2017 record for the number of structures destroyed (15,573 – 472 of which were commercial) and killed over 80 people, according to CBS News. It became the deadliest wildfire in California’s history and the worst in a century in the U.S., according to the state of California.

Three fires alone – the Camp, Woolsey and Hill fires – caused total insured losses of $9.05 billion, which could balloon to over $13 billion when final tallies are in. CoreLogic, a third-party loss estimator, places total California wildfire losses for 2018 at between $15 billion and $19 billion.

Of the 20 largest wildfires in California history, 15 have occurred since 2000. While data shows the overall frequency of wildfires has remained relatively constant season-on-season, the size, volatility and impact of wildfire events has dramatically increased.

Is this a new normal? Can improved risk mitigation techniques help extinguish wildfires once and for all?

Reinsurance and risk modeling experts have begun using terms such as “mega-fires” and “the new abnormal” when mentioning recent wildfire trends and also identify several contributing trends to worsening conflagrations.

See also: Spreading Damage From Wildfires  

Some of these factor include an increase in property development in and adjacent to areas between unoccupied land and human development; an increase in fuel loads such as dead trees on the ground; an increase in weather volatility from year to year; longer dry seasons; intense seasonal winds that change fire behavior; and, multiple fires erupting at the same time and often in close proximity.

Foam “coverage” for fire-protection

Among fire mitigation solutions, one of the more novel has been the application of environmentally safe, biodegradable fire-fighting foam used for pretreatment and suppression around a property’s perimeter and buildings where the fire threat is imminent. One such solution, marketed by Consumer Fire Products, Inc. (CFPI), a professionally trained brigade of fire professionals dedicated to wildfire property protection, is applied manually from private fire trucks fashioned with state-of-the-art equipment. The brigades coordinate closely with local incident command centers and operate within active fire zones, at the behest of insurers and other interested parties.

Major insurers often work with companies like CFPI to evaluate exposed locations, assess fire threats and prioritize deployment of resources. Customers with significant exposure and within close proximity to the forecast fire path could be identified, allowing CFPI to patrol these locations and take precautionary measures such as clearing brush, relocating flammable materials away from combustible construction and, as a last resort when under imminent threat, spraying buildings and foliage with biodegradable, fire-fighting foam.

Although the ability to know exactly where to invest and deploy protective services real-time is challenging, the concerted monitoring of conditions with underwriters has enabled protection services, once deployed, to continue until conditions like wind speed, low humidity and underbrush dryness have diminished enough over a seven-day period to safely discontinue services.

Insurance support

Innovative approaches and services represent part of the new frontier in predictive and proactive mitigation responses. As such capabilities emerge, it is imperative that the insurance industry be at the center of any such dialogue.

After an event, insurers should ramp up communication efforts with customers – making immediate contact and maintaining it until adjusters can access affected areas to assess damages, advance funds and analyze and facilitate customer needs (e.g. finding temporary storage locations or modifying existing undamaged structures).

Besides property insurance, which covers existing structures, and time element coverages to protect against business interruption, some “inland marine” coverages can also help in the rebuilding phase (e.g. repairing a burned-out site that is damaged by ensuing mudslides), like builders’ risk, installation floaters, riggers liability and construction block.

Mudslide Mitigation

Heavy rains during the wet season in previously burned areas can often cause devastating mudslides, which can further exacerbate and even increase property loss. According to the State of California Department of Insurance, insured losses from the 2018 mudslides—which especially hit the Santa Barbara area hard—resulted in 358 commercial property claims, totaling $129.2 million. Taking all claims into account – commercial and personal property – the grand total was $589.5 million, according to CBS News. Damages from mudslides can be as costly as damages from fires.

Some tips to mitigate mudslide dangers include monitoring local warnings to know if you are in a mudslide-prone area; being aware of your surroundings and the possibility of mudslides; and, being mindful of the potential for large pieces of landscape, including trees, logs, boulders and other debris fields, as well as “floating” destroyed houses, buildings, vehicles, etc. to fall or move in your vicinity.

See also: How to Fight Growing Risk of Wildfire  

Insurers can now strengthen their clients’ defense and better preserve their property partnership with policyholders. They are looking into how this in-event mitigation service on a large scale can be tailored to meet the customers exposed to various natural perils. By doing this, top insurers are taking risk prevention and mitigation to the next level.

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About the Author

Scott Steinmetz brings broad industry experience coupled with nearly three decades of practical experience in applied engineering and risk management consultancy.

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