Wildfire Season is Here - More Underwriting Factors and Tools to Consider [Part 2 of series]
In the first part of our 2020 wildfire blog series, we focused on larger insurance issues such as the nationwide exposure to wildfire outside of the Western states, as well on the value and limitations of LANDFIRE data. In this blog, we shift focus to examine specific conditions that are difficult to accurately capture in underwriting tools - local vegetation, insect and land features that contribute to wildfire severity as well as post-wildfire losses.
Chris White, a well-known expert in the field of wildfire risk and mitigation, drills deeper into wildfire factors and data to share more valuable observations. Chris is a principal of Anchor Point, a wildland fire solutions company based in Boulder, Colorado, that has developed a national wildland fire hazard and risk model as an underwriting tool (No-HARM) for the insurance industry.1 We continue our Q&A with Chris.
Q. Are there any specific underlying conditions to be aware of to underwrite against that may get lost in the more obvious elements that we focus on?
Two elements come to mind, first would be insect and disease outbreaks and second, local mitigation. There are many insects and diseases that cause vegetation defoliation and mortality in the U.S. The West experienced massive epidemics in recent years. This has created large scale tree mortality in many areas.
One of the hardest fire behavior calculations is trying to predict how fire will behave in conifer (evergreen) forests that are, as we say, “red and dead”. Tree mortality happens in phases, the tree begins to turn red from dead needles and eventually dies, this can take a year or more. Each phase brings a host of different burning behaviors. Wildfire severity and probability is directly tied to the health of the forest and this element is difficult to assess but essential to capture in a risk assessment.
The second element is local mitigation, or land features that have a positive or diminishing effect on fire behavior. We aren’t talking about defensible space here but more landscape-scale mitigation. Mitigation can be in the form of fuel reduction projects conducted by federal, state or local agencies. More common but less obvious forms of mitigation in the form of golf courses, bare ground, large water bodies, even some agricultural crops all of which, whether man made or natural, change fire behavior for the better and must be integrated into a risk assessment.
Anchor Point is on the fourth generation of our National Hazard and Risk Model (No-HARM). Our staff Fire Behavior Analysts understand how mitigated areas affect fire behavior and we integrate this variable into our modeling. The graphic below shows vineyards in the Napa Valley which have been shown to slow fire spread and help protect homes adjacent to them.
Q. As we saw after the 2017 Thomas Fire in southern California, many communities are at risk from mudslides and debris flow for months after a wildfire. What are some of the major factors that determine the frequency and severity of such an event happening, and are there tools that can help (re)insurers evaluate this exposure?
The main factors contributing to post-fire flooding are the predicted fire intensity, the soil type, ruggedness of the terrain, and the probability of a significant rain event after a fire. These factors all contribute to the depth, velocity and force of the flow. Anchor Point has teamed with a company that specializes in this field, RESPEC, to develop tools for underwriting. We focus on pre-fire predictions, determining areas that are at risk of post fire debris flow and or flooding before the fire.
After determining how intense and how long (resonance time) a fire will burn in a specific area, you can then apply the soil characteristics and ruggedness factors. Once a baseline has been established you have to look at probability of occurrence in both the fire event and the weather event. For this, we run 2, 10, 50, 100, and 500 year rain scenarios to understand the spatial changes in flooding from pre-fire to post-fire. What I have found very interesting is that in post-burn conditions it may only take, let’s say, a one to two-year rain storm to generate the same water depth, velocity and force of flow that would result from a 50-100 year storm. This means that in certain areas, the probability of experiencing a destructive post-fire event increases materially.
We have run this methodology against the 2018 Montecito debris flow event. The USGS conducted inundation mapping and CalFire conducted damage surveys from the event. This allowed us to calibrate and validate the methodology. I really like the integration of these disciplines, fire and hydrology to be able to predict areas that are vulnerable to post fire flooding and debris flow.
Wildfire has truly become a primary peril for governments, individuals and insurers. With better tools and data, we can all reach better prediction and outcomes. In my business, that’s what it is all about.
GEN RE PERSPECTIVE
Last year Gen Re wrote a publication “Underwriting Wildfire - Creating Your Hazard Map” that raised many issues and factors to consider when evaluating the peril of Wildfire. Our main goal was to encourage insurers to explore and better understand data, facts and elements that may not be fully or accurately captured in the tools and models available today.
In our collaboration with Anchor Point for this publication, we believe the complexity of insect and disease damage on forests, local mitigation efforts, as well as the Wildfire-Mudslide interaction, all demonstrate an array of additional factors that ought to be evaluated when developing, evaluating or applying any tools. These examples reinforce the need for a robust and thoughtful approach when underwriting wildfire.
We hope you found this Q&A exchange informative, and we encourage you to reach out to Chris at Anchor Point if you have another question for him - and also to your Gen Re representative to discuss how we can help you with this important topic.
- Gen Re does not have any business relationships with Anchor Point and makes no recommendations regarding their use. The views expressed in the Anchor Point answers are those of Anchor Point.
Chris White is the COO of the Anchor Point Group LLC. He has specialized in Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Management for over 30 years. He started his fire career in 1987 working with both the U.S. and Colorado State Forest Service. Chris then became Colorado’s first county-level Wildland Fire Coordinator in Summit County.
Chris and his Anchor Point team consult with FEMA, providing fire investigation and policy direction. He has worked with the Western Governors Association Federal Fire Policy Review Committee, The National Wildfire Coordinating Group Hazard and Risk Assessment Methodology Committee, National Fire Protection Association Wildland Fire Committee, as well as collaboration with the International Association of Fire Chiefs on international initiatives.
Chris is a NWCG certified Structure Protection Specialist and has worked with Type 1 and 2 Incident Management Teams throughout the U.S. on major wildfires.