Canadian Underwriter

What fire following a B.C earthquake could cost the industry

November 13, 2020   by David Gambrill

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Fire following a severe earthquake in the Vancouver area could cause more than $10 billion in damage, and the municipality should establish alternative sources of water supply to help fight the anticipated fires arising from the quake, according to a new study released Friday by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR).

“Strong shaking in the Vancouver area could lead to hundreds of ignitions, and breaks in water supply lines would compromise the capacity of firefighters to suppress these fires,” the ICLR notes in a statement announcing the release of the report, Fire following earthquake in the Vancouver region. “Even well-prepared fire services, like those in Vancouver and area, could be overwhelmed by a large number of fires.”

The ICLR’s $10-billion estimate for fire damage following an earthquake in the Vancouver, B.C., area excludes damage estimates from ground shaking and other sources (tsunamis, liquefaction etc).

“Talk of earthquakes generally only raises concerns about damage from the shaking,” ICLR’s executive director Paul Kovacs said in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “Seldom are other considerations taken into account, like the impact of fire. This study indicates that the impact of fire alone can be substantial for the city of Vancouver and other nearby communities.

“The good news is that there are several measures fire departments, owners and managers of high-rise buildings, and public utilities can take to reduce the risks and these are outlined in the study.”

Specifically, the report finds that fire following earthquake losses in the Vancouver area could be reduced significantly through:

  • investments in a regional portable water supply system for Vancouver area fire services;
  • the provision of emergency firefighting water supplies for high rise buildings; and
  • the inclusion of seismic shutoff valves in all gas meters in at-risk areas, among other recommendations.

Previous research in 2013 by the catastrophe modeler AIR Worldwide, commissioned by the Insurance Bureau of Canada, suggested that an earthquake in B.C. would cost insured damages of approximately $20.4 billion (that figure included only $337 million for fire damage following the earthquake). The scenario in the AIR Worldwide study was based on a Magnitude 9 quake occurring in the Pacific Ocean approximately 75 km off the west coast of Vancouver Island, about 300 km from downtown Vancouver.

More recently, a study published by ICLR in 2019 estimated that a Magnitude 6.5 quake centred in downtown Montreal, and Magnitude 7 events to the northwest and southwest of Montreal, could cause fire following damage anywhere between $10 billion and $30 billion, depending on fire department response, water system damage, weather, and other conditions.

ICLR’s study on fire following an earthquake in the Vancouver region was prepared by Dr. Charles Scawthorn, an international authority on managing the risk of fire following an earthquake. He also authored the 2019 ICLR study Fire following earthquake in the Montreal region and the 2001 ICLR study Assessment of Risk due to Fire Following Earthquake Lower Mainland British Columbia.

Scawthorn has also produced studies assessing fire following earthquake risk for the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Tokyo.


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