Dr Arindam Samanta and Michele Steinberg
Rising temperatures, prolonged droughts, changing precipitation patterns, and regional wind events are turning wildfire ‘seasons’ into a year-round phenomenon. In 2020, more than 58,000 wildfires burned nearly 10.3 million acres in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Additionally, more than 4.5 million US properties are at a high-to-extreme risk of wildfire, with more than 2 million of those in California alone, according to Verisk estimates.
Fortunately, mitigation efforts by homeowners, builders and local governments can have the potential to lessen the impact of these destructive events. They can also give insurance underwriters greater insight on wildfire risk for the properties they’re insuring.
A partnership committed to helping address wildfire risk
Recently, Verisk and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) announced they would collaborate to promote the importance of community wildfire risk mitigation. As part of that effort, Verisk will analyse data on communities that are engaging in wildfire mitigation efforts through the NFPA’s Firewise USA programme. Verisk will also share that data with many insurers to help them understand how mitigation efforts can make communities more resilient in the face of the rising threat of wildfires.
NFPA and Verisk have partnered to help emphasize the importance of Firewise USA to a broader audience. More than 1,800 US communities participate in the Firewise USA programme, which gives communities recognition when they take steps to increase the wildfire resistance of properties in their boundaries. Among those communities are seven Sites of Excellence, which have been monitored over the past two years to determine how parcel-level mitigation work across contiguous properties can reduce the ignition and spread of wildfire. The rigorous data collected as part of this initiative will help provide validation about the effectiveness of wildfire mitigation tactics.
Verisk, a leading provider of mitigation data to the insurance industry, is leveraging Firewise USA data to develop property-level analytics that insurers can use to refine their underwriting. This data will help show insurers when property owners live in a community that’s committed to addressing and attempting to reduce their wildfire exposure. And it will help complement the wide range of data insurers may use to underwrite properties in areas prone to wildfire, including their unique terrain, vegetation, road access and level of local fire protection.
Creating defensible space
One way property owners can help mitigate wildfire risk is establishing defensible space around a building, reducing the amount of vegetation available to fuel a fire. This includes removing flammable debris from gutters, rooflines, decks and porches, and sealing any openings in the home where embers could penetrate.
A 30ft defensible space around a home and its surrounding structures can often be effective, with a 100ft buffer even better, though homeowners with smaller lot sizes may need to cooperate with their neighbours to achieve this goal.
As demonstrated by Verisk analysis of aerial images/data from past fires, neighbouring homes can have vastly different outcomes from wildfire, with one difference being how much vegetation and other combustible fuel sources were in proximity to the dwellings.
A wide range of mitigation measures
Creating defensible space, though, is only one example of how fire protection experts, municipalities, homeowners, business owners, government agencies, and the insurance industry can all contribute to efforts to help lessen wildfire’s toll on communities. There are other ways to reduce potential damage, including:
- Ensuring firefighters have adequate roadway access to assist in wildfire response
- Promoting enforcement of building codes
- Using building materials that will help properties better withstand wildfire damage, such as fire-resistant siding and roofing materials
The NFPA’s ongoing community education efforts are helping homeowners understand how even small actions can help safeguard their properties. For example, a house whose planting beds are decorated with river rocks rather than pine mulch is less likely to catch fire if a stray ember falls from a nearby wildfire. Covering attic vents with screens to repel sparks and keeping gutters clear of leaves are easily implemented tactics for homeowners. Commercial property owners can adopt most of the same strategies as homeowners, including ensuring there is at least 30ft of defensible space around their buildings and using fire-resistive materials when practical.
Communities also have a vital role, with local and state governments managing public lands by culling excessive vegetative fuel, adopting building and land use standards that increase resilience, and ensuring adequate access for firefighting by building or maintaining roadways.
A vision for the future
Although wildfire frequency and severity go through peaks and valleys, the trend is toward larger and more destructive conflagrations. Mitigating risk today can help communities and property owners be better prepared for the growth of wildfire. The collaboration between NFPA and Verisk provides a framework for cooperative, voluntary action that can have a measurable impact on reducing the risk to homeowners, firefighters and communities as a whole, while delivering critical exposure information to insurers to help better inform their business decisions.
Verisk has a full suite of solutions that can help insurers and communities assess wildfire risk. The suite includes the property-level risk scoring tool FireLine and solutions that provide evaluations of local fire protection capabilities, insights on building code enforcement, assessments of defensible space, and post-event aerial imagery. Verisk also offers probabilistic wildfire modelling for portfolio management and risk financing strategies and assistance with claim management.
To learn more about home protection techniques and strategies, visit NFPA’s wildfire safety pages at www.nfpa.org/wildfire to find science-backed steps to strengthen homes for ignition-resistance, and the process of working with neighbours to become a Firewise USA recognized site.
About the authors