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.
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.