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Wildfire Outlook and Future Problem Areas – August, 2019

While the global insurance industry seems to be eyeing every cloud mass in the Atlantic Ocean for the development of the next possible named storm and what might unfold in terms of overall activity and landfalls, the industry should also pay attention to a different type of weather forecast. Some similarities can be drawn between the lower 48-state fire season and the Atlantic hurricane season in that they are both off to fairly quiet starts. There is curiosity within the industry as to whether the back half of both of these seasons will be hyperactive.

With a total of over $33B of North American wildfire insured loss since 2016, it’s clear that wildfire has taken on new importance in the insurance industry. The good news is that much of North America is exiting the core of the fire season and, so far this summer, there has been a welcome wildfire reprieve. In California, only 24,579 acres have burned this year as opposed to 621,784 acres last year (CAL FIRE Only stats to Aug 22). The other bit of good news is that California has only about 6.73% of the state under abnormally dry conditions, with no drought conditions being reported. This is a vast improvement from one year ago when 47.19% of the state was reporting drought conditions.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) combined Statistics including the U.S. Forest Service for the state of California.

There is still much of the fire season remaining, including the most dangerous time of year when strong, dry offshore winds peak during the months of September, October and November and have, historically, been associated with the majority of California’s worst fires. The Santa Ana and Diablo winds which, when combined with abundant fine fuels, can lead to elevated fire activity, even if the current fire risk is low. In fact, after a fairly wet winter, the abundance of fine fuels, such as annual grasses, has increased, which adds to the fuel load across the region. As these fuels dry out, there is significant risk if a fire starts and high winds are present.

The National Interagency Fire Center is one of the official sources for wildfire assessments and outlooks. According to its forecast, the areas of greatest concern continue to be the lower and middle elevations across California, the northern and western Great Basin, and portions of the Pacific Northwest where the robust grass crop has cured and can become an easy source of fire.

Since the halfway point of the western wildfire season has passed, there are some signals that point towards an active, compressed, season across the west as the southwestern monsoon becomes more active. While this will effectively end the fire season across the southwest, lightning-induced fire activity is expected to increase elsewhere. And, since humans cause the majority of wildfires, risk is always present. When accidentally or intentionally set fires are combined with wind events, which have been largely absent thus far, but will intensify in frequency by mid to late month as dry frontal passages become more common, the risk of wildfire will also increase. Wind events and low humidity will contribute to a likely increase in fire occurrences into the start of November.

During the late fall or even early winter, when a high-pressure system forms over the deserts of the Great Basin, the high pressure circulates clockwise, pushing air westward toward the lower-pressure areas of the coast, where it drops from high elevation to sea level. This causes the air to become compressed and it heats up, and its relative humidity drops. As the air drops from high elevation to sea level it can be forced through passes and canyons. This can cause wind gusts of 40 to 60 mph or even stronger. Image Source: InsideClimateNews

Unlike a hurricane, which often provides the insurance industry with a few days’ notice to determine expected loss, devastating fires often occur at a moment’s notice. The best thing the insurance industry can do is practice good accumulation management now, acknowledging areas that could become the next Paradise, California. Recent work by Pamela Ren Larson and Dennis Wagner at azcentral.com concluded that there are as many as 526 locations with a higher wildfire potential than Paradise, CA. In the absence of a newer, sophisticated catastrophe model, the insurance industry can still use Larson and Wagner’s very thoughtful analysis to determine the overall risk to a portfolio via a simple risk score. Although their analysis looked at the hazard, it also tried to understand the overall human risk, which life and casualty lines should contemplate.

The insurance industry may also want to consider analyzing areas outside of the western U.S. that could become the next Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For example, the 1.1 million acres of Pine Barrens in New Jersey, which is mostly rural despite the proximity to the sprawling metropolitan cities of Philadelphia and New York City, could result in a major insurance industry loss. There are vulnerable locations along the wildland-urban interface where fires are common. At some point, the weather conditions will be right to create a worst-case scenario, which could impact towns like Tabernacle or Barnegat Township in New Jersey. Thankfully, the peak of the wildfire season in New Jersey is during the spring months.

General Wildfire Risk Hazard Across the State of New Jersey. Source: Rolling Stone Will-Americas worst Wildfire Disaster Happen In New Jersey

Another recent concern is the increased wildfire risk that has been created by Hurricane Michael across Georgia and the Florida Panhandle. According to the National Association of State Foresters, a total of 92 million tons of timber, or roughly 4 million truckloads of timber, were destroyed by Michael’s fierce winds. The volume of dead and downed fuels will likely contribute to an increase in the number, intensity, and duration of wildfires over the next three to ten years. According to the Association, there are typically 4.87 tons per acre of available fuel in Florida. Currently, the average is up to 58 tons per acre – a ten-fold increase. In a catastrophic area, there are over 100 tons per acre. In fact, analysis done by the Southern Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal puts 49 communities at risk in the catastrophic wildfire zone and 194 communities at risk in the severe wildfire zone. Again, much like New Jersey, the highest likelihood of wildfire across this region is in the spring.

While the wildfire season will likely end up being below normal in terms of acres burned for the western U.S., it only takes one fire under the right conditions to make a memorable season. Significant wildfires can occur even when fire conditions are not extreme. Therefore, it is beneficial to understand wildfire risk accumulation and determine what is a comfortable level of loss by simple aggregation analysis or using new sophisticated wildfire models. These models have suggested that recent wildfire seasons are on the order of a 30 to 60-year return period, so none of the recent U.S. wildfires are considered tail events. Instead, these events have low return periods of less than 100 years, which reflects increasing U.S. wildfire risk in large part due to development of the wildland-urban interface. Insurance companies should understand this risk due to the proliferation of wildfire-prone areas throughout the U.S.

BMS Wildfire Update Nov 9th

California’s typical wildfire season takes place in the fall, with the majority of large insured loss events occurring in October. Of the 27 large insured wildfire losses occurring in California since 1964, 16 have occurred in the months of October, November and December, and have accounted for 87% of the total losses over that time span. After an already long and destructive wildfire season for much of the western United States (which includes the Carr Fire and the Mendocino Fire Complex in California in July and August) that has resulted in over $1.3 billion of insured loss, major fires have again ignited in California on Thursday, November 8th. Much of the state is under an elevated fire risk, with almost 10,000 square miles under critical fire conditions according to the National Weather Service. Red flag warnings have also been issued, which represent conditions of very low humidity and high winds that tend to result in extreme fire behavior.

The cause of the Camp Fire has yet to be determined, but it started in the early hours of November 8 near the Plumas National Forest. The first firefighters to arrive found about 10-15 acres burning. Wind gusts of nearly 50 miles per hour helped accelerate its growth and spread it into the town of Paradise, CA.

BMS iVision has a direct feed of the current fire perimeters. These perimeters use the IRWIN (Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information) system. Perimeters are collected in the field by a variety of means, including infrared flights, and by using a GPS unit to map the perimeter. BMS clients can use these maps to see if any risks are exposed to the fires.

Initial reports suggest well over 2,000 residential and commercial structures have been destroyed by the fast moving fire which quickly spread embers into the center of town. The fire is currently encroaching on Chico, CA, and Highway 99 and several thousand other structures are still threatened by this fire. It should be noted that typically when fires burn over 1,000 structures, it’s safe to say that the insured loss will likely be above $1 billion.

List of the largest damaging wildfires in North America, ranked by # of structures destroyed. Note most fires with over 2,000 structures are often over $2 billion in insured loss. Fire Source: http://www.fire.ca.gov

Elsewhere across the state, the Hill and Woolsey fires ignited Thursday in southern California near the Thousand Oaks, CA community and began spreading rapidly. Evacuations have been issued this morning for the entire coastal community of Malibu, CA. Damage has been reported from the Hill fire, but the full magnitude is currently unknown. Just to the south, the Woolsey fire has jumped the 101 highway and has destroyed multiple structures according to Ventura County Fire Department. The Malibu area is under mandatory evacuation due to both of these fires, as authorities expect they could burn all the way to the coast and clearly there is major exposure in the current evacuation area.

In total, there are 13 known fires currently burning in California. With extreme fire conditions occurring, many of these fires will be difficult to contain and it is expected that several insured loss events could result from any of these fires. BMS iVision does have active wildfire layers, such as the current satellite derived hot spots and when issued, the integrated reporting of wildland fire information perimeters will be shown. Both of these resources allow the user to access the scenario based tools within iVision to understand the exposure and damage potential from these fires.

California Columbus Day Firestorm

Although October is usually known for Atlantic hurricane activity and sometimes a second peak of severe weather that can occur as summer wanes, this month is also the height of the California wildfire season, which typically runs from spring to late fall. Unfortunately, it should be no surprise that this western wildfire season has been one of the worst on record – in May, I briefly mentioned that it could likely get ugly. So far, the U.S. budget for fighting wildfires has topped out at $2.35B, which does not include the recent fire-fighting efforts. Year to date, the wildfires have burned 8.5 million acres across 51,000 fires.

National Interagency Fire Center Stats https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm

California has had nearly five years of extreme drought followed by record rains last winter, producing a bumper crop of grasses and fine fuels on top of drought-dried, diseased and stressed heavier fuels. Fuel analysis ahead of the Columbus Day firestorm were at all-time record dry levels. Like many previous firestorms, when this situation is combined with the Santa Ana/Diablo wind events that occur every year and the right weather conditions, any fire ignitions that occur will cause fire explosions that race along the landscape.

Columbus Day firestorm cause
The Oakland Hills, CA fire of 1991 had been the seminal fire event that changed the insurance industry’s perspective on wildfire loss, much like Andrew did with hurricane loss. However, the Columbus Day firestorm will no doubt be viewed as a considerable event in a growing list of large wildfires that have impacted the insurance industry in recent decades. There are very few natural catastrophic events that result in such destruction as a wildfire, although the effects of an EF 5 tornado are similar. However, the damage from wildfires is often worse since everything is reduced to ash, with virtually nothing being recoverable. With EF 5 tornado damage, some personal belongings can usually be salvaged. This is often not the case in fires, which make them a different beast entirely.

 

The exact cause of most of the Columbus day fires are still under investigation, it is most likely they were either human triggered or a result of sparking from down power-lines due to the high winds that occurred.  No thunderstorms were in the area so that can be ruled out at this time.

The weather conditions that created the firestorm are often referred to Diablo winds, which follow the same type of pattern as Santa Ana winds – the northern and southern California areas simply use different names for the same weather phenomenon. The increased fire conditions start when a big ridge of high pressure sets up over the Great Basin in the inter-mountains west from Utah to Nevada. This causes air to flow from east to west across California, from high elevation to sea level. It is at this point that the first law of thermodynamics takes over. As the air is compressed when moving from a higher elevation to a lower elevation, it heats up. During this movement of air, the moisture in the air does not change much, but with a rising temperature, a large disparity between the temperature and the moisture in the air is created and pushes the relative humidity to very low levels. As the air gets compressed, it moves faster, forced over mountains and pushed through canyons.

How hot, dry downslope winds form, like the Diablos and Santa Anas. Source: The Washington Post

Leading up to Monday’s firestorm, the pressure at Reno, NV at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 8 was at 1020 mb, and the pressure at Napa, CA was even lower at 1008 mb. This difference in pressure was the catalyst for the Diablo winds, which in some places gusted to 79 mph.

Notice how fast the winds picked up in the evening hours on October 8th. This is scary as most people were in bed when these fires broke out so they have little to no warning to leave.

As of Thursday morning, 22 wildfires were burning across northern California, which is an increase from the 14 that were originally reported on Monday. Looking ahead, until there is a major North American weather pattern change, the Diablo/Santa Ana wind events could occur every few days. With a La Nina building in the Pacific Ocean, the long-term prospects for rain are slim across the state, particularly in the south. A large subtropical ridge is forecasted to be in the area until at least next week, as moisture-laden storms rumble ashore over the Pacific Northwest and keep California dry. Currently, the National Weather Service has a Red Flag Warning in effect until Thursday the 12th until 5 pm PDT, which means that critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now or will be shortly. The combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior.

Although the wind is not expected to be as strong as observed earlier in the week, this warning is due to the increasing north to northeast wind and low humidity that will generate critical fire weather conditions again. New and existing fires could rapidly spread during this time period.

Measuring insured loss of Columbus Day Firestorm
The latest figures from the Associated Press suggest that the Columbus Day firestorm destroyed at least 3,500 homes and businesses. PCS has issued two separate catastrophe bulletins which cover the Atlas Fire near Napa, CA and the Tubbs Fire near Santa Rosa, CA. However, these are just two of the most destructive fires across the region. For example, the Canyon Fire 2 near Anaheim Hills is now 60% contained, but burned 26 structures, damaged another 36, and continues to threaten 3,500 structures. Therefore, the wildfire losses will be more far-reaching than PCS has reported, since it only designates losses of $25m or more. For the latest information on these fires and their containment levels, please see Cal Fire Incident Information, which gets updated as often as needed.

Where and how to get fire information

Current location of active fires according to Cal Fire

 

This is an area in North Santa Rosa around Coffey Park. As shown many of these structures were burned to the ground. Zillow suggest many of these structures are worth at least $400. Locations outside of town in the foothills are easily double in value. It should be noted this is just the home value not counting the total loss of the contents of these structures.

If the AP estimate of at least 3,500 homes burned is correct, then as a combined event, this will be one of the largest wildfire insured loss events in U.S. history, if not the largest. Below is a chart illustrating some of the most damaging North American wildfires and the estimated insured losses if they were to occur today.

List of the largest damaging wildfires in the USA in recent time, ranked by # of buildings destroyed. The Oakland hills fire of 1991 was 2,900 structures. So, in aggregate, the ongoing Columbus Day Fires now exceed 1991 Oakland Hills fire. Notice how many of the CA wildfire have occurred in October.  Note most fires with over 2,000 structures are over $2 billion in insured loss.

 

BMS iVision has a direct feed of the current fire perimeters. These perimeters use the IRWIN (Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information) system. Perimeters are collected in the field by a variety of means, including infrared flights, and by using a GPS unit to map the perimeter. BMS clients can use these maps to see if any risks are exposed to the fires.

With the understanding that the Tubbs and Atlas Fires had a large impact on the expensive Napa/Santa Rosa areas, it is assumed that the losses will be much higher than past fires such a the Oakland hills fire of 1991 because of the effects on commercial property. At least 14 commercial wineries, a Hilton hotel, a Kmart, a McDonalds and even the historic Fountaingrove Round Barn have been destroyed by the fires.   Many other commercial properties have been destroyed and if not destroyed will have business interruption. Smoke related clean up that could also work its way into the insured losses from this event even if the structure did not have damage.

Catastrophe Model can’t come fast enough
Many areas of California have a long and active wildfire history. Typically, about 10,000 wildfires are ignited in California every year. Of those, only about 20 cause property losses and fewer still cause losses large enough to be designated a catastrophe. But when conditions are right, the losses can be truly catastrophic, as we saw with the Columbus Day firestorm. Many areas of the state are characterized by narrow valleys surrounded by steep, hilly terrain. The interface between wildland areas and development, exposed residents and businesses is increasing the wildfire risk. In the last several decades, the combination of firefighting technology, fire suppression policies, environmental regulation, and development trends has led to increased fuel loads, greater occupancy of remote areas and greater potential for catastrophic wildfires. This is a trend occurring all across the country.

The risk for wildfire is increasing across all 50 states, with the costly wildfire outbreaks in Texas, Tennessee, and Colorado being recent examples, yet the insurance industry still lacks the access to a full probabilistic wildfire loss model for the entire U.S. For years, the insurance industry has had access to assess the wildfire hazard from various sources and, of course, there are several tools built into the catastrophic loss models that help with accumulation management. Some catastrophic modeling companies have developed loss models for California only as a result of the high losses that occurred after the devastating fires that hit southern California in October and early November 2007. However, limited updates have been made since the initial release.

The good news is that modeling companies are currently working on U.S.-wide probabilistic wildfire loss models. However, as we have shown, wildfires can be very complex, with embers traveling several miles and igniting new fires. The models that are in development will need to incorporate the newest landfire fuel databases that seem to change constantly with growing vegetation across the U.S. These models need to have fire-spread algorithms and account for human fire suppression decision-making through stochastic simulations of man-made fire breaks. They should also model the possibility that a wildland-urban interface fire will transform into an urban conflagration, such as we saw in the Santa Rosa area.

To understand wildfire behavior, the models will need to include historical data on average hourly wind speed and direction based on weather stations, but those might not address the varied microclimates that can occur in a complex terrain. Of course the models will need to account for a wide-range of residential and commercial constructions, including the presence of mitigating factors, such as fire-resistant roofing and siding materials, which are becoming more and more popular.

Several million dollar homes in the Fountaingrove area northeast of Santa Rosa were destroyed. Notice the lack of defensible space around many of these structures.

Also, as we have seen in past wildfires, defensible space and vegetation control have a huge impact on site-specific loss. In fact, fire-wise communities, resilience efforts and research by the IBHS are helping to minimize wildfire loss.