There used to be a discrete, four-month span from late summer through early fall, when big wildfires could be expected to flare – a wildfire season, not so different from the hurricane season on the East and Gulf coasts, or the hail season impacting the Midwest, that residents prepare and brace for annually.
But times are changing. Now the U.S. Forest Service speaks of, and plans for, a ‘fire year’.
Welcome to year-round Wildfire season.
As insurers enter an era of sustained threat, knowing what steps at-risk communities and other stakeholders are taking to mitigate wildfire risk has become essential to property underwriting and risk assessments. Because one thing is clear: wildfire has yet to deter people or businesses, at large, from buying property in at-risk areas. Indeed, Verisk’s modelling data suggests an upward trend in insured losses over the last two decades from wildfires, despite the fact that the frequency of these events has held relatively steady. The trend indicates that this increase in insured losses is driven primarily by growth in the number and value of exposed properties in high-risk areas.
Even a below-average 2021 fire season caused widespread disruption
Nearly 59,000 wildfires burned roughly 7.1 million acres in 2021 and caused, by our estimates, $4 billion in insured losses. While the total acreage burned was slightly below the ten-year average of 7.3 million acres and significantly lower than the 10.1-million acres burnt in 2020, the year had many notable wildfire events:
- The Dixie Fire became the first in recorded history to cross over the Sierra Nevada range. Then, just several weeks after this unprecedented event, it happened again during the Caldor Fire, prompting significant evacuations from tourist attraction South Lake Tahoe.
- Four of the 20 largest fires in California history occurred in 2021, including the state’s second-largest fire ever – the aforementioned Dixie Fire, which burned over 960,000 acres alone.
- Colorado’s Marshall Fire burned into the new year and spread across both natural and artificial barriers, threatening populous areas and burning over 1,000 residential and commercial structures before it was contained.
And it’s likely going to get worse.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Drought Monitor noted that over 20% of land in the American West was experiencing ‘extreme or exceptional drought’ conditions. One study suggests this drought could last into 2030, parching the landscape and creating ideal conditions for future blazes. Indeed, the same study indicated that the years 2000–2021 were the driest 22-year per period in the Southwest since at least the year 800.
According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, a warming planet is likely to produce not only more droughts, but more variable rainfalls, higher land temperatures, and more storms that produce lightning – collectively, many of the ingredients to spark more, and more severe, wildfires.
An informed view of wildfire risk at the community and parcel level
Confronted with the sobering reality of sustained risk, a wide array of stakeholders are engaged in efforts to better understand, minimize and mitigate the threat of wildfire to their properties and communities.
Mitigation can take many forms. At the parcel-level, structure hardening is a technique that includes retrofitting an existing property with fire-resistant materials (like roofing tiles) or building new properties with less-flammable materials. On the exterior, property owners can develop defensible space, a series of concentric perimeters that are cleared of vegetation and potential fuels (wooden patio furniture, dead tree limbs, etc.) that not only deprive a fire of things to burn but create space for first responders to operate. Common benchmarks for defensible space include clearances of 30 and 100ft around a structure.
And, it’s critical that these measures be adopted at the community level because once a fire hits one large structure, it is increasingly likely to migrate throughout an entire neighbourhood, especially when there are fuels that can carry a fire between parcels. Additional measures communities can take collectively may involve improving access roads in at-risk areas, citizen outreach and education, strengthening building codes and improving signage so that first responders can quickly locate roads.
Analysing both parcel and community-level mitigation measures can help insurers gain a deeper understanding of wildfire risk.
In addition to aerial imagery, which can help insurers identify defensible space, the presence of fuels and trees near a home, as well as the material and conditions of at-risk structures, organizations that coordinate and promote mitigation can be a vital source of this data.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)’s Firewise USA® Program, which educates property owners and communities on how to reduce wildfire risks, has collected over a decade’s worth of data on mitigation activities, including:
- Granular data on over 500 active communities throughout California
- In-depth historical data, including 15 years’ worth of data on hundreds of active California communities – and counting
Communities participating in Firewise USA® are required to report on their mitigation activities annually to remain in good standing and NFPA provides bi-annual updates on the status of Firewise USA® sites, so the data is continuously refreshed, and this essential information is available to the insurance industry through Verisk’s wildfire risk scoring model.
Mitigation takes a village, and then some
Recent research sponsored by NFPA reveals that community-wide wildfire mitigation across adjacent parcels is not only achievable but can also foster improved community cohesion and better communication among residents, emergency responders and land managers.
In this latest research, Residents Reducing Wildfire Risks: Findings from the NFPA® Firewise® Sites of Excellence Pilot, 2019–2020, NFPA highlights the design and successes of its Sites of Excellence pilot with communities in seven states. This 24-month pilot program discovered how more ambitious wildfire mitigation goals could be achieved in select Firewise sites. At each site, community leaders identified up to 100 co-located, adjacent homes and asked homeowners to complete mitigation tasks based on individual risk assessments.
Mitigation tasks focused on the ‘home ignition zone’ – the structure and its immediate surroundings out to 30ft. Recent wildfires have revealed the dangers of inadequate protection in this defensible space zone.
According to NFPA, sites that participated in the Sites of Excellence pilot program saw higher levels of engagement and interest in the Firewise program and wildfire mitigation efforts; in six of the seven sites, more than 80% of adjacent households achieved the goal of mitigation in the home ignition zone.
New data for a new era of wildfire risk
As organizations, individuals, communities and governments band together to blunt wildfire risk, insurers have an opportunity to sharpen their wildfire risk assessments by leveraging sources of mitigation data, alongside the latest science on wildfire and climate risks.
The ‘fire year’ is here. Are you and your neighbours ready?
For more information, go to www.verisk.com/wildfire