With the start of the U.S. wildfire season on the horizon, in the latest edition of EXPOSURE – the RMS magazine for risk management professionals, wildfire is our lead story, as we examine whether it now needs to be considered a peak peril. The 2017 and 2018 California wildfires have forced one of the biggest re-evaluations of a natural peril since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, as the industry begins to comprehend the potential loss severities.
The article argues that there are similarities with U.S. wildfire as there was with North Atlantic hurricane in 1992 – catastrophe models were relatively new and had not gained market-wide adoption, and many organizations were not systematically monitoring and limiting large accumulation exposure in high-risk areas. Find out why a rethink is required about how the risk management industry currently analyzes the exposure and the tools it uses.
A new wildfire season looms on the horizon across the United States, and as the last two years of huge wildfire insured losses and extensive devastation to lives and property clearly illustrates, wildfire is no longer an easily manageable loss for the (re)insurance industry – but a new peak peril.
So, what could be in store for the 2019 season? The industry is reeling from back-to-back seasons with losses over US$10 billion. This is unprecedented even during a period when average losses between 2011-2018 were at US$3.7 billion. And looking back, this is up 40x compared to 1964-1990, where losses were below US$100 million in today’s prices. What is changing with this peril, what are the risk drivers that we need to look out for?
Why the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Intensity Scale had five levels we don’t know. The digits on a hand? Better than three, but lower resolution than the dozen rungs for wind speeds or earthquake intensity? Whatever the reason it seems to work.
In the late 1960s, Herbert Saffir, a Florida building engineer, was sent by the United Nations to study the hurricane vulnerability of low-cost housing in the Caribbean. He realized something was needed to rank hurricane destructiveness. Saffir had some “Richter envy” from observing the ease with which seismologists now communicated with the public. In 1971, he contacted Robert Simpson, head of the National Hurricane Center to help link damage levels with wind speeds.
Seeing the opportunity to communicate evacuation warnings, Simpson also added details around the height of advancing storm surges. Better information was clearly needed, after the loss of life in Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi coast in 1969.
On January 30, Judge William Alsup, district judge for the Northern District of California presided over a hearing to discuss the inclusion of wildfire prevention in a 2016 Probation Order mandated to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) in the aftermath of the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion that left eight dead.
An order to add conditions to their existing probation, filed on January 9, aimed to “…protect the public from further wrongs by the offender, to deter similar wrongs by other utilities, and to promote the rehabilitation of the offender…” The order included the determination from CAL FIRE that PG&E caused 18 wildfires in 2017, with CAL FIRE continuing its investigations into the causes of the more recent Camp Fire last year.
From major wildfires just over four months ago, and now major flooding, Northern California seems to leap from one perilous state to another. This time, rainfall from a “potent atmospheric river”, as described by the National Weather Service, caused flooding to over 3,000 properties in Sonoma County. This atmospheric river – a flowing column of condensed water vapor pumped up from the Tropics which can be up to 375 miles (603 kilometers) wide – started delivering rain and snow into the region late on Sunday, February 24.
The small town of Guerneville (pop. ~4,500) fared worst, reporting nearly 21 inches (529 millimeters) of rainfall in just 72 hours by 5 p.m. local time on Wednesday, February 27. The source of the town’s flooding was the Russian River, which flows from Mendocino County through to Sonoma County, reaching a maximum level of 45.5 feet (13.9 meters) at Johnson’s Beach, near Guerneville. This exceeded the defined 40 feet (12.1 meters) threshold for a major flood at this point, with local media reports stating that this is the worst flooding since New Year’s Day in 1997, when the river rose to 45 feet (13.7 meters). The nearby Napa River also crested at 26 feet (7.92 meters), one foot above the flood stage.
The town of Guerneville, which was originally built on a meander in the river, on February 27 was declared by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office “… [as] officially an island …” as all roads in an out of the town were flooded. 4,000 residents in both Guerneville and Monte Rio (pop. ~1,200) were under evacuation orders until Friday, March 1.
What will the 2019 wildfire season bring across the United States?
Across the United States, around eight and a half million acres burned in 2018, nearly three times the annual average during the 1980s and 1990s. That is the equivalent of the entire state of Maryland burning in one year. Last year’s Camp and Woolsey fires in California burned a total of 245,000 acres – these two fires alone burnt a combined area around three times the size of Detroit, destroyed more than 12,000 structures and killed 80 people.
It is getting hard to argue that the size and ferocity of the most recent wildfires across the U.S. are just anomalies, the evidence just does not support these events as being exceptional anymore.
As California’s then Governor Jerry Brown stated at a press conference as the Camp and Woolsey fires raged, these wildfire events are “… the new abnormal …” and that events may worsen over the next few decades. He added that “… the best science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they’re going to intensify.”
While California wildfires may seem far removed from Atlantic storms, for capital markets investors the fires may make the difference to how 2018 is remembered. Insurance Linked Securities (ILS) eyes are now trained on multi-peril aggregate catastrophe bonds.
When I was a kid, my favorite breakfast cereal was Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes. As a teenager in the 1980s, I recall that the name changed to Frosted Flakes. In 1983, to appeal to a more health-conscious consumer, Kellogg simply dropped “sugar” from the name. And around the same time, Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks became Honey Smacks. There didn’t seem to be a dramatic reduction in sugar. Even today, sugar makes up over 55 percent of the total content of Honey Smacks and is the lead ingredient. Honey trails at fourth. The idea was … if the consumer didn’t see the word sugar, they wouldn’t necessarily jump to the conclusion that it was loaded with sugar. One could argue that this was just a marketing ploy – yet most would agree it secured marketing appeal by removing a potential distraction from its name.
At the time of writing, the recent Camp and Woolsey Fires in California have burned a combined total of 245,000 acres (93,000 hectares) — an area about the size of Dallas. These fires have destroyed more than 12,000 homes and businesses, and killed 80 civilians. Ordinarily these would be called extreme events. But these are not ordinary times. After back-to-back record breaking wildfire seasons, including the Wine Country fires (US$11 billion) and Southern California Fires (US$2.3 billion) in 2017, and the Carr Fire (~US$1.2 billion) and Mendocino Complex fires (~US$200 million) this year in July, California Governor Jerry Brown perfectly summed up the current situation in his state: “This is the new abnormal.”
As firefighters make continuing progress on containment of both fires, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) is quickly assembling an inventory of each burned structure, to detail the extent of the damage. Based on this data, plus a simulated reconstruction of the event’s wind, moisture, fuel, and fire spread parameters, RMS estimates the insured damage at between US$7.5 billion and US$10 billion for the Camp Fire, and US$1.5 billion and US$3 billion for the Woolsey Fire. This estimate accounts for burn and smoke damage; structure, contents, business interruption (BI), and additional living expenses (ALE) payouts; damage to autos; and modest post loss amplification (PLA) that may result from surges in labor costs, ordinance and law endorsements, and related coverage extensions.
Like many communities in California with a mild climate, affordable housing, and scenic wilderness, Butte County (pop. ~230,000) has grown significantly over the past four decades. Broadly, this growth is happening all around the county — both in cities (e.g. Chico, the county seat and largest city, pop. ~94,000) as well as in more rural areas. Looking more closely, however, the specific spatial patterns of Butte’s development reveal conditions that set the stage for the ongoing Camp Fire to become one of the deadliest and most destructive fires in California history.