SPECIFIC RISK FACTORS CAN HELP FUEL THE FLAMES
By Arindam Samanta
Large wildfires in the United States and Canada in 2015 and 2016, have highlighted a dangerous trend: wildfires are get- ting worse in frequency and severity, leading to greater de- struction of property. In fact, 2015 was a record-breaking
wildfire season. Wildfires, heat waves and drought produced $1.9
billion in insured losses in 2015, and set a new record for the number of acres burned in the United States.
Between January 1 and December 30, 2015, there were 68,151
wildfires across North America, which burned 10,125,149 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). During the
same period in 2014, 63,417 fires burned 3,577,620 acres.
From 1996 to 2015, fires (including wildfires) accounted for 1.8
percent of insured catastrophe losses in the United States, totaling
about $6.4 billion, according to Property Claim Services® (PCS®), a
unit of Verisk Insurance Solutions.
Wildfire severity is not limited to the United States; it’s an issue in
Canada too. For example, on May 1, 2016, a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, and continued to spread east into
Saskatchewan. The fire scorched approximately 590,000 hectares
(1,500,000 acres) and was one of the costliest Canadian natural disasters for insurers, destroying 2,400 homes and buildings. Two fatalities were attributed to the fire, and the entire population of about
80,000 was evacuated. PCS estimated the insurance industry loss
from the Fort McMurray wildfires at C$3.98 billion, approximately
The science of wildfire risk
Research shows that property location plays a significant role in determining exposure to wildfires. The primary risk factor is the distribution of vegetative fuels around a property location. Topography
influences the speed of wildfire spread. Access — or lack thereof —
for firefighting personnel and equipment is also critical. Experience
proves that properties on dead-end streets or in single-access neighborhoods present added challenges for firefighters.
Remote sensing and digital mapping technologies can be very
effective in analyzing location-specific risk factors. These technolo-