Canadian Underwriter

Advertisement New wildfire index fights a $5.6-billion problem

July 24, 2018   by Opta Information Intelligence

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With wildfire losses reaching a whopping $5.6 billion in the past 10 years, there is an urgent need for a solution that can help insurers price the risk accurately, as well as to help municipal and provincial governments know their vulnerabilities so they can take targeted preventative action to protect communities.

“Climate change is having a profound impact and making everything hotter and drier, so we know wildfires are only going to become more common and more devastating,” says Opta President Greg McCutcheon. “After events like Slave Lake and Fort McMurray, we knew we had to add a wildfire index to our suite of products.”

Enter the Wildfire Grading Index, newly unveiled by Opta Information Intelligence’s Fire Underwriters Survey (FUS) division. The product combines reams of data with analytics capability to score a community’s risk level, while at the same time providing residents with specific recommendations for how to lower the risk and improve their insurance score.

“As Canada’s largest property data aggregator, our Number 1 job is to help our customers assess risk and take action based on that knowledge,” McCutcheon says. “It’s gratifying if the results can lead to safer communities and reduce the loss of life and property from these tragic events.”

The Wildfire Grading Index differs from existing FUS products, which tend to focus on the risk of a fire starting inside a building and spreading outward. The Dwelling Protection Grading Index and the Public Fire Protection Classification Index, for example, score municipalities’ risk for individual dwellings and multi-building fire events. Scores incorporate local fire department capacity, water supply, fire prevention codes and emergency communications.

In contrast, the Wildfire Grading Index looks at fire risks external to the buildings.

Fire Underwriters Survey VP Mike Currie explains. “For a century, other FUS indexes have been measuring risk levels and firefighting capability for relatively localized fires that start in a building and move outwards,” he said. “Until the Wildfire Grading Index, there was nothing to assess the risk of massive fires that start in the surrounding forest and move into neighbourhoods. It’s a whole different scale of event that puts entire communities at risk.”

To create its new index, Opta collected massive amounts of new data that had never before been gathered in one product. These include:

  • vegetation type and density;
  • forest health and mortality caused by pest infestation (such as mountain pine beetle);
  • elevation levels and slopes (fire burns faster uphill);
  • whether neighbourhoods have created fire breaks by clearing the area between homes and woods (regional/landscape level mitigation); and
  • local climate conditions.

The product is updated frequently to account for climate and weather changes, such as a prolonged dry spell.

Absolutely essential to the program is providing at-risk communities with a best practice course of action for improving safety. Mitigating actions begin with the need for a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, says Currie. After that, stakeholders can take an array of actions at every societal level. Examples include:

  • clearing away brush, at the individual property level;
  • creating fire breaks, at the neighbourhood level;
  • improved community planning, at the municipal level; and
  • adopting a Wildland-Urban Interface Code, at the provincial level.

“Wildfire events can be massive and require response from multiple communities and the province,” said Currie. “They are extremely difficult to suppress, so it is far better to address the risk through preventative action before they occur, and everyone can and should play a role.”

For the past century, FUS models have been very effective in helping insurers assess risk, McCutcheon notes. They have given municipalities the information they require to help make strategic investments in infrastructure and firefighting capability. The Wildfire Grading Index continues this tradition while handling fire events of a much greater magnitude, he said.

“Because of our excellent relationships with government and fire services officials, and the trust they have in us, we are in a unique position to work with them on this important mission of making communities better protected against wildfire,” McCutcheon said.

The Wildfire Grading Index is now available all across the country. Those interested in the product can email or click here to learn more.

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