The last two North America wildfire seasons have seen total insured losses skyrocket to over US$23 billion – compared to 1991-2010 where average annual losses totaled US$600 million. Wildfire has staked its claim as a major U.S. peril, with events now consistently topping the multi-billion dollar mark. Four of the five all-time biggest wildfire events occurred in 2017 and 2018, and seven wildfires exceeded the US$1 billion threshold in this timeframe.
When the WUI is Not Enough
Wildfire risk can no longer be managed through accumulation strategies, hazard zoning, or simple extrapolation of historical data because the fundamental drivers of wildfire risk are changing:
There are 30 percent more buildings at risk than there were 30 years ago
Recent weather patterns show that the fire season is getting hotter and drier than in the past
All these factors mean that past losses cannot be easily extrapolated to predict future risk levels. Instead, the industry needs tools from a probabilistic catastrophe model to properly capture future wildfire risk.
Wildfire risk is not limited to the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) anymore. The figure below shows DINS (Damage Inspection) data from CAL FIRE overlaid on the burn perimeter for the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Northern California. Almost half of the destroyed structures in that fire came from areas considered to have no wildfire risk since they are in sub-urban areas classified as non-burnable by existing risk scoring methods. It is not sufficient to manage insurance portfolios with simple hazard zoning approaches.
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?
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.”