It has been a year since the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. The Camp Fire burnt some 153,336 acres, starting at Camp Creek Road, two miles from the small community of Concow, Butte County in Northern California. A fire was reported at 6.33 a.m. local time on Thursday, November 8, 2018, and spread to Concow within 30 minutes and by 8 a.m. had moved quickly west to the town of Paradise (pop. ~26,800).
The town was devastated within hours, as embers driven by 50 miles per hour winds created an urban conflagration which saw 80 to 90 percent of the town destroyed. The fire took 15 days to fully contain. Overall, the fire destroyed a total of 18,804 structures, and killed 85 people.
The insurance industry is also still reeling after both last year’s and the previous year’s record-breaking California wildfire seasons with US$23 billion in insured losses. All eyes are on the current events as a quiet early season has morphed into an active late season, as the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County that started on October 23, burnt some 77,758 acres and destroyed 374 structures according to CAL FIRE. The Kincade Fire is now the largest ever wildfire in Sonoma County.
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.
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.
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.
Chris Folkman, senior director of product management at RMS, was interviewed by Paula Newton on CNN’s Quest Means Business program on Monday, November 12, about the impact of the California wildfires.
Paula asked Chris about the range of factors that have made these wildfires so intense, and also about the potential causes of the fires. Chris explained how the fires could have started and how the almost perfect conditions for the fire produced such a rapid spread. For the Camp Fire in Northern California, deaths were caused by the fire’s sheer speed that had overwhelmed residents as they tried to escape from the path of the flames.
Describing the scale and savagery of the wildfires currently burning in California is difficult to do, but a simple recounting of the statistics is a good starting point. They are thus:
At the time of writing, fifteen wildfires are now burning more than 280,000 acres (~113,000 hectares) in California. Collectively, they have laid waste to almost 7,000 homes and businesses. 31 people have died in the fires. 300,000 more were evacuated. 12,000 firefighters are working the front lines, making admirable progress at containment.
The biggest of these events, the Camp Fire (named for the road of its point of origin) is the most destructive wildfire in history, with 6,700 structures burned. During a period of particularly intense wind, it spread at a rate of more than one football field per second. Entire towns in its path are effectively destroyed.
Memories of last year’s Wine Country fires in Northern California and the Thomas Fire in Southern California are top of mind as we look at the unfolding wildfire events across the state, especially the notable Carr Fire to the northwest of the city of Redding in Shasta County, with a population of around 92,000.
Initial observations show similarities to the Wine Country fires in terms of its speed and ferocity, as the Carr Fire spread rapidly overnight on Saturday, July 28, nearly doubling in size. As of 02:00 UTC on Thursday, August 2, the fire is reported to have burned about 121,000 acres (~49,000 hectares) — see figure one below, destroying 1,546 structures, damaging an additional 255 structures, and forcing the evacuation of 38,000 people, according to CAL FIRE and local officials.
RMS has produced estimates for the insured loss arising from the Thomas Fire that affected the Southern California counties of Ventura and Santa Barbara in December 2017. The estimate will fall between US$1 billion and US$2.5 billion, and includes loss caused by burn or smoke damage to personal, commercial, and industrial lines of business, along with insured loss from business interruption and additional living expenses. It excludes loss to automobile and agriculture lines of business and all damage related to the recent mudslides that impacted the same area. This estimate was calculated using RMS high-resolution exposure data and comparisons against historical fire damage, loss, and claim data.