As many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. Some human-caused fires result from campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, negligently discarded cigarettes and intentional acts of arson. The remaining 10 percent are started by lightning or lava.
Over the 20-year period, 1993 to 2012, fires, including wildfires, accounted for 1.7 percent of insured catastrophes losses, totaling about $6.5 billion, according to the Property Claims Services (PCS) unit of ISO. The term “catastrophe” in the property insurance industry denotes a natural or man-made disaster that is unusually severe. An event is designated a catastrophe by the industry when claims are expected to reach a certain dollar threshold, currently set at $25 million, and more than a certain number of policyholders and insurance companies are affected.
Damage caused by fire and smoke are covered under standard homeowners, renters and business owners insurance policies and under the comprehensive portion of an auto insurance policy. Water or other damage caused by fire fighters to extinguish the fire is also covered under these policies. In California the California FAIR Plan covers residential and commercial properties located in brush and wildfire areas. Properties in those areas are subject to higher rates due to increased risk of fire.
- Recent Research: According to the 2013 Verisk Wildfire Risk Analysis, more than 4.5 million U.S. households are at high or extreme risk from wildfire. The analysis shows that California has the most households at high or extreme risk (2.0 million), followed by Texas (1.3 million), Colorado (374,000), Washington State (163,000), Idaho (161,000), Oregon (160,000), Arizona (159,000), Utah (126,000), New Mexico (123,000) and Nevada (59,000)
- Idaho has the highest percentage of households at high or extreme risk from wildfires (24.1 percent), followed by Colorado (16.9 percent), California (14.5 percent), New Mexico (13.6 percent), Texas (13.0 percent), Utah (12.8 percent), Oregon (9.5 percent), Washington (5.7 percent), Arizona (5.6 percent) and Nevada (5.1 percent).
- An October 2013 study by Corelogic identifies more than 1.2 million residential properties across 13 states in the western U.S. currently at high or very high risk of wildfire damage. They represent a combined total property value estimated at more than $189 billion. Of the total properties identified, about 268,000 homes fall into the very high risk category alone, with total residential exposure valued at more than $41 billion.
- Colorado, California and Texas are the states with the largest number of properties categorized as very high risk, with a combined property value exceeding $34.5 billion. The exposure jumps to $160 billion when properties at high and very high risk are included.
- Of seven cities analyzed in the report, Los Angeles is home to the most single-family residences exposed to wildfire risk, with more than 60,000 properties in the high or very high risk categories.
- The cost of fighting wildfires reached $3.5 billion per year from 2002 to 2012 according to a report by Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit Research group.
- Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences researchers have concluded that by 2050 the number of wildfires in the West could rise by 50 percent, and across the U.S. the number would double.
- Colorado Task Force: On September 30, 2013 the Colorado Governor’s Task Force on Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health Task Force issued its recommendations, many of which would require legislative action.
- The task force recommended that risk assessment scores be assigned to individual properties located in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), i.e. homes built in wildfire-prone areas, and that a mitigation audit be conducted on properties that receive a certain score.
- While the results of the mitigation audit would be provided to insurance companies, the task force did not specify how insurers must use the information, noting that to ensure a competitive marketplace, “insurance companies must maintain their own individual underwriting and inspection processes with minimal interference from the legislative branch.”
- The task force also recommended that the state develop model building codes and that a fee be assessed on properties located in the WUI. Those funds would be collected at the state level and distributed to local governments to help offset the costs of mitigation for properties in the WUI.
- There has been no legislative action on the recommendations of the task force to date.
- 2014 Wildfire Season: Drought conditions have continued into 2014 in California, creating more wildfire risk.
- Between January 1 and October 10, 2014 there were 41,790 wildfires in the U.S., which burned about 3.1 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
- The Happy Camp Complex fire in California burned over 134,056 acres.
- The Carlton Complex fire in Washington state burned over 256,108 acres and was the largest fire in the state to date.
- 2013 Wildfire Season: In 2013, 42,658 wildfires burned over 4 million acres, with California, North Carolina, Oregon, Montana and Arizona experiencing the most wildfires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
- A massive wildfire that began near Yosemite Park in California on August 17 had burned over 255,000 acres and was designated as the state’s third-largest wildfire. The Forest Service had fewer fire fighters and other resources in 2013 due to funding cuts dictated by sequestration.
- The December 17 fire in Big Sur, California, burned 917 acres and more than 30 homes.
- In central Arizona, a fast moving fire near the town of Yarnell killed 19 fire-fighters and burned hundreds of homes in June 2013. This is the third-highest death toll for fire fighters attributed to wildfires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
- In Colorado, wildfires in the spring burned about 21,000 acres in five areas of the state. The largest, which was the Black Forest fire, just outside of Colorado Springs, destroyed at least 489 homes, damaged hundreds more and caused many to be evacuated, according to state officials. Two people were killed in the Black Forest fire.
Researchers are discovering that embers blown by the wind during wildfires cause most of the fires that burn homes. Also, homes that are less than 15 feet apart are more likely to burn in clusters. In such cases, fire is often spread by combustible fences and decks connected to houses, a study by the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) found.
The risk of wildfires is likely to continue to grow as temperatures rise, lengthening the fire season, and more people move into steep forested areas once largely uninhabited. Thirty-eight states have wildfire risks, according to IBHS, and the risk of wildfires keeps growing as more homes are built in wildland areas, some five million in California alone. Among the preventive features recommended in the IBHS study were noncombustible siding, decking and roofing materials; covered vents; and fences not connected directly to the house. In addition, combustible structures in the yard such as playground equipment should be at least 30 feet away from the house and vegetation 100 feet away.
TOTAL POTENTIAL EXPOSURE TO WILDFIRE DAMAGE BY RISK CATEGORY, 2013
THE TEN MOST WILDFIRE-PRONE STATES, 2013
NATURAL CATASTROPHE LOSSES IN THE UNITED STATES, 2013 (1)
TOP TEN STATES FOR WILDFIRES RANKED BY NUMBER OF FIRES AND BY NUMBER OF ACRES BURNED, 2013
THE TEN MOST COSTLY WILDLAND FIRES IN THE UNITED STATES (1)
Verisk Insurance Solutions – Underwriting and Verisk Climate, units of Verisk Analytics. FireLine State Risk Report, November, 2013.
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