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Lessons for Canadians from California wildfires


December 13, 2017   by Greg Meckbach, Associate Editor


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Recent record wildfire losses in California serve as a reminder to Canadians that certain buildings separated from the woods can still burn down, a Canadian disaster prevention research executive suggests.

Losses from the California wildfires, in excess of $10 billion, is one reason the cost of reinsurance will likely rise next month.

“The losses in California, both in October and now, confirm a lot of what we already know —prevent embers from igniting, and you can save a structure and prevent building-to-building spread of fire,” wrote Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, in an email this week to Canadian Underwriter.

A wildfire seen from Camarillo, California. Photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman, California Air National Guard

After the May, 2016 Fort McMurray conflagration, some neighbourhoods had one isolated home standing while neighbouring homes were reduced to piles of ash, McGillivray observed in October at the Annual Engineering Insurance Conference in Toronto.

Related: Wildfire has ‘very very different pattern’ of impacted areas: CatIQ Catastrophe Conference speaker

This is due in part to the presence on a property of various materials that increase the risk of wildfire embers igniting — wood sheds, wood piles, wood fences and propane tanks all increase property risk from wildfire.

McGillivray said “California probably leads the way in incorporating wildfire risk into how and where new homes are built, requiring builders to follow a Wildland Urban Interface Code when building new homes and requiring communities to draft Fire Hazard Severity Zone Maps.”

Even so, he added, the California maps “don’t appear to have taken wind and the travel of wind-borne embers into consideration,” McGillivray said. For example, most of the homes lost in the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa in October were located well into the city, away from brush.

A helicopter from the California Army National Guard flying over a wildfire in Ventura County, California. Photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman, California Air National Guard

This speaks to the need in Canada to remove materials that might ignite when contacted by embers blowing in from fires located far away.

The 2011 Slave Lake, Alta. wildfire ranked fifth, at $806 million, on A.M. Best Company Inc.’s list of the most expensive catastrophe losses in Canadian history. Losses from the 2016 Fort McMurray, Alta. Wildfire, Canada’s most expensive insurance catastrophe to date, have been pegged at slightly less than US$3 billion.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that some areas northwest of Los Angeles remain under evacuation order, with 1960s singer Eric Burdon among those who had to leave his home. Deadly wildfires in southern California have destroyed about 800 buildings, since December 4. The wildfires that hit northern California in October have caused insured losses of more than US$9.4 billion, the state’s insurance department reported Dec. 6.

This year’s California wildfires “are contributing to a record year for insured disaster losses and will contribute to at least some tightening of what has been an incredibly prolonged soft reinsurance cycle,” McGillivray told Canadian Underwriter Dec. 11. McGillivray warned there “will be increases” in reinsurance prices when contracts are renewed Jan. 1 though it “remains to be seen” how high those prices will increase.