Canadian Underwriter

Is wildfire on the back burner?

March 6, 2019   by David Gambrill, Editor-in-Chief

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Wildfire may be among the most likely of major cat events to hit Canada over the next coming years. But is mitigation on anybody’s radar right now? Is the risk out of season, out of mind?

The potential for damage was huge last season. In Ontario, 1,028 wildfires burned as of last August, an 87% jump over the province’s average number of wildfires. And B.C. saw its largest wildfire season ever in 2018. More than 530 fires burned down 13,000 square kilometres of the province, beating a previous record set the year before.

And yet, by chance, because of where the fires burned last season, there were no major wildfire catastrophes. In B.C., about 25,000 residents were either evacuated or put on standby to evacuate; that’s about 40,000 fewer last year than in 2017.

David Gambrill, Editor-in-Chief

Basically, Canadians – and insurers, by extension – got lucky. But as one reinsurer put it to me recently: “Luck is not a strategy.”

And so what remediation efforts have been undertaken recently to reduce the known risks associated with wildfires?

Certainly the risks have been well-publicized since a wildfire scorched Fort McMurray, Alta. in 2016. The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) has identified a number of exposures associated with people developing communities in forested areas.

Preventing the ignition of embers that blow ahead of wildfires is key. As noted by the ICLR, this can be done in a variety of simple ways: install screening below wood decks to prevent embers from settling there; move wood piles and propane barbecues away from the residence; use non-wooden roofs (metal and asphalt shingle); and keep wood fences away from homes.

The thing is, who is coordinating these remediation efforts? Who’s responsible, ultimately, for everyone’s safety? Can we trust individual property owners to do the right thing? Are brokers asking the right questions? Are government agencies on top of it? Or do insurers have a role to play in how they price their policies?

This needs to get sorted out soon. As the death toll in California shows (not to mention the 10, 321 structures that burned up in the Camp Fire), the stakes for insurers and their policyholders are quite high.

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