Report: Western wildfires growing more intense, insurers deeply concerned

October 17, 2013

Just four years into the decade, the 2010s have seen an unsettling amount of historic natural disasters. These destructive events have left very few parts of the country untouched: hurricanes in the northeast; an historic derecho in the Mid-Atlantic; a long string of tornadoes in the South; and widespread flooding in the central Plains. The western United States, however, deals with a much more dangerous threat each summer – wildfires.


While most structures have at least fighting chance to survive against the winds of a hurricane or the onrush of floodwater, protecting one’s property from wildfire damage requires preventative action well before the flames start. As such, these increasingly-common disasters take a hefty financial toll when they engulf areas populated with even a handful of residential or commercial buildings.

Wildfires have been particularly large and destructive in recent years. The three-year period between 2011 and 2013 alone saw:

This trend is particularly alarming not only to residents in areas that are prone to burn during the summer, but to the insurance companies who insure those in harm’s way. Wildfires are very costly – 2003’s Cedar Fire in California, the largest (by land area burned) in the state’s history, resulted in almost $2 billion in damages. Understanding how these fires form (and how to stop them from growing more intense) may help to bring costs down in the future.

lloyd-report

As part of a company that reinsures insurance companies, and can take a large financial hit when an especially costly disaster occurs, the Exposure Management team at Lloyd’s of London is particularly interested in events like wildfires.The team released a report titled “Wildfires: A Burning Issue For Insurers?” earlier this year outlining in great detail the reasons why wildfires are growing in intensity, how these fires translate to financial losses, and ways to reduce the frequency and damage caused by future events.

While some wildfires occur naturally as a result of lightning strikes, humans are to blame for the vast majority of wildfires that occur in the western United States. Large fires have resulted from human actions ranging from a carelessly flicked cigarette to the work of an arsonist.

These fires mostly occur during the summer months when the weather is hot, dry, and windy. These three ingredients help dry out vegetation (giving fuel to the fire) and allow the flames to spread over very large distances.

The report notes that wildfires have occurred naturally for 400 million years, so why are they growing more intense now compared to the past? The experts at Lloyd’s say that the answer is twofold: human activity and climate change are both negatively affecting the development of these disasters.

Humans have gotten really good at suppressing naturally occurring wildfires. Wildfires serve a distinct purpose in nature by clearing the overgrowth and other debris on the forest floor as a way to refresh the ecosystem. The United States began a concerted effort in the 1940s to suppress wildfires (Smokey Bear and his famous catchphrase of “only you can prevent forest fires” were created in 1947), teaching the public how to safely manage controlled burns of debris, campfires, and other seemingly simple tasks that could result in the burning of thousands of acres.

This and similar education campaigns were highly effective, so effective in fact that they arguably did more harm than good in the long run. The growth in education among the public, joined with enhanced methods of fire fighting such as using airplanes and helicopters, disrupted the natural fire cycle of the forests in the United States. Forests are so overgrown in some parts of the western United States that when a fire does occur, it’s vastly more intense and can spread much more rapidly than it would have just 70 years ago.

The Lloyd’s report argues that one more human influence looms large over the future of wildfires: climate change. The predicted occurrence of more frequent heatwaves (accompanied by low humidity and less precipitation) will lead to the ingredients necessary for wildfire formation coming together more often. Especially in light of the IPCC’s recent report on climate change, a combination of climate change and highly effective fire suppression methods will likely contribute to a continuing increase of larger and more damaging wildfires in the future.

Related: Southwest drought, climate warming and fuel: an explosive combination for record wildfires | Arizona Wallow fire largest in state history; climate change projections suggest far worse in pipeline

This increase in large, damaging fires makes insurance companies nervous. Page 17 of the Lloyd’s report notes that the United States alone incurred over $28.5 billion in losses due to wildfires between 1980 and 2011; the worldwide losses from wildfires over a period between 1984 and 2013 was a notch over $52.3 billion. As the number of large and damaging fires increases and people in the United States move further west into areas prone to burn, the property losses will continue to grow.

The big question is not how to stop these fires altogether, but how to prevent them from becoming behemoths that destroy hundreds of thousands of acres and cost tens of millions of dollars in one fell swoop. The first prevention method brought up by the Lloyd’s report involves early warning systems. The National Interagency Coordination Center provides detailed daily reports on fire conditions across the United States to help local, state, and national agencies prepare and react to impending fire dangers.

The second method proposed by the report is to move away from aggressive fire suppression campaigns and let the natural fire cycle reestablish itself in areas with extreme overgrowth. If nature is allowed to remove overgrowth and other debris from the forest floors through naturally occurring fires, thereby removing the fuel supply, future wildfires won’t be as intense or large as they are today. The United States government acknowledged this in 1995 and altered its policy to allow some natural fires to occur, as well as using prescribed (controlled) burns to help clear away some of the growth that could fuel future fires.

The third method of wildfire mitigation ultimately comes down to the landowners themselves. As people move deeper into forested areas of the western United States, the report argues that they need to take wildfire mitigation into their own hands in order to prevent future devastation and help to lessen the financial impact of such events. Some methods of prevention include clearing dense vegetation from one’s property, “creating strategic breaks in fuel sources and avoiding continuity between different fuel sources” on private land, and using flame resistant and flame retardant materials when building structures in areas prone to burn.

As the images on the news show every summer, the threat of wildfires is a very real and persistent threat to a not-insignificant portion of the United States. It will take a concerted effort on the part of both the government and private citizens to lessen the physical and financial impact of wildfires in the future. It’s an uphill battle to stop these disasters from happening, but if the wildfire mitigation methods laid out in the Lloyd’s of London report are followed, it’s not an unachievable goal.

Updates/corrections, 5:19 p.m. on October 30: Previous text indicating homes could not be protected from wildfires was amended to state: “protecting one’s property from wildfire damage requires preventative action well before the flames start.” In addition, the statement that most wildfires are natural in origin was corrected to indicate most wildfires are due to human activity.  Also, text indicating that the U.S. began a concerted effort in the 1940s to “prevent” wildfires was changed to a concerted effort to “suppress” wildfires. These changes reflect reader feedback.

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Jason Samenow · October 17, 2013