Canadian Underwriter
News

The hard part of managing wildfire risk


February 26, 2020   by Greg Meckbach


Print this page Share

Your clients may be doing all the right things to manage their wildfire risk, but what about the property halfway down the street?

“You can have four homes in a row that are perfectly maintained, just the way they are supposed to be, and then a home that is five doors down is overgrown and a welcome place for embers,” said Roy Wright, president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, during the recent CatIQ Connect conference.

If one home catches fire because the property was overgrown, it puts other properties on the same block at risk, Wright suggested.

“We are, in my mind, going to have to find this balance between peer pressure in communities and some regulation that comes from the community to enforce and take actions [to enforce property maintenance],” said Wright. “It’s not easy.” He was replying to an audience member who asked how we can encourage property owners to maintain their land in such a way as to ensure that nothing that could catch fire is beside their homes.

Wright was the final speaker at CatIQ Connect, produced by Catastrophe Indices and Quantification Inc. and held Feb. 3-5 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

During the luncheon keynote Feb. 5, Narrowing Disaster Impacts: Flood, Fire, and the Importance of the Roof, Wright suggested that in 90% of cases when a building is destroyed by wildfire, it’s not because the fire itself travelled all the way up to the building. Instead, it’s because embers were blown up to half a mile from the fire and landed on the property.

So it is “absolutely essential” that property owners ensure that nothing that could ignite is within 30 feet of the building, said Wright.

“The last five feet needs to be rock or some kind of non-ignitable material,” said Wright. “Many people spread wood mulch around their house. They put it in their gardens. It’s a great way to make things look nice, and deal with weeds, and all this kind of stuff.  You might as well be spreading cases of matches around your home.”

Related: The burning question: where is Canada’s national wildfire plan?

IBHS, whose members include major insurers writing property coverage in the United States, conducts experiments intended to improve the industry’s knowledge of wildfire risk management.

The three major factors affecting wildfire risk are topography, weather, and fuel, said Wright. While we cannot control topography or the weather, property owners can to some extent control the fuel, by making sure that things that burn are not close to the building, he suggested.

Blowing leaves in such a way that they accumulate underneath a wooden deck is one example Wright gave of actions that increase wildfire risk.

“The best places I have seen are where there is a condo or homeowners association where this kind of thing can be written into a bylaw,” said Wright. “Defensible space has to be maintained on an annual basis. The concern really isn’t month to month. But on an annual basis, things can grow back. Things can accumulate. And where is the right enforcement? We haven’t quite figured it out yet.”