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2017 Wildfires Raged — Solutions in 2018

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Other than President Trump, his trials and tribulations with Democrats and Republicans and with Congress, probably the two biggest stories of 2017 are the sexual harassment scandals and wildfire.

Wildfire impacts insurance and people in a big way.

The U.S. Forest Service said over 9.5 million acres in the U.S. were burned up by wildfires in 2017. Most of that acreage is in the West and a huge percentage of that is in California.

Not counting the still burning and largest ever California fire the Thomas Fire in the Los Padres National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service spent $2.4 billion fighting fire last year. By the time all the accounting is done that figure will rise even higher. 

How bad is it in California? Through the first six-months of 2017, the state spent $699 million fighting fire. At one point 8,600 federal, state and local firefighters were battling the Thomas Fire. The fire storm in Northern California in October saw 11,000 firefighters desperately trying to put out a bunch of fires — fires that eventually claimed 45 lives.

The state’s fire season is growing longer and prompted California Governor Jerry Brown to say the state will likely be on fire permanently for the unforeseeable future.

“This is the new normal. We’re facing a new reality in this state where fires threaten people’s lives, their property, their neighborhoods, and of course billions and billions of dollars. We have to have the resources to combat the fires and we have to also invest in managing vegetation and forests, and all the ways we dwell in this very wonderful place, but a place that’s getting hotter,” Brown said.

It’s the new normal for other states as well. Montana saw a very active fire season. So did Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Thousands of acres burned in those states including one that burned down a historic lodge in Montana and another that burned thousands of acres in Oregon and Washington’s gorgeous Columbia River Gorge.

The Northern California fires — alone — will cost the U.S. economy $85 billion and untold billions in losses locally. The current estimate for insurance losses is over $12 billion. Around the West wildfire losses amount to billions more.

It gets worse. CoreLogic said nearly 900,000 homes around 13 states in the West are at “very high” or “high” risk for wildfire. Rebuilding those homes will cost more than $237 billion. California, Colorado and Texas — in that order — have the most homes at risk. Combined their reconstruction value is $36 billion.

Six California cities are in the top 10 most at risk. Here’s the list:

1.    Riverside/San Bernardino/Ontario, California — 50,605 homes are at risk. Reconstruction value is $14.86 billion.

2.    Sacramento/Roseville/Arden/Arcade, California — 42,042 homes are at risk. Reconstruction value is $15.88 billion.

3.    Austin/Round Rock, Texas

4.    Denver/Aurora/Lakewood, Colorado

5.    San Antonio/New Braunfels, Texas

6.    Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim, California — At risk homes number 17,006. Reconstruction value is $8.65 billion

7.    Chico, California — 15,103 homes are at risk. Rebuilding value is $3.75 billion.

8.    Colorado Springs, Colorado

9.    Truckee/Grass Valley, California — 14,671 homes at risk. Reconstruction value is $4.9 billion.

10.  Houston/The Woodlands/Sugar Land, Texas

 

What should we expect in 2018? Unless things change drastically in how wildfire firefighting is funded and how forests and wild lands are managed, we’ll see more of the same. Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service said since 2000 firefighting costs have skyrocketed. “It’s just getting worse and worse,” she noted.

The year 2017 is the fifth year since 2006 that burned acreage has rose above 9 million acres. The record is 10.1 million acres in 2015 and unless changes are made around the West and on how these fire prone areas are managed, it will be — as Governor Brown so eloquently stated — the new normal. 

Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden and other members of Congress in the West say something needs to be done. To get the ball rolling Wyden is once again pushing his Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. He hopes to rework how we pay for firefighting. Currently a lot of the dollars used to fight wildfires comes out of money supposed to be used to prevent fire.

His bill — co-sponsored by Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo — ends what Wyden calls “the bizarre and common-sense-defying practice of fire borrowing.” It’s because of the shifting of funds that the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can’t take care of downed trees, tree limbs and the underbrush that accumulates on forest floors and fuels fire.

Wyden’s idea is to fund the largest wildfires from a natural disaster fund like that done for hurricanes and other disasters. “It feels like we've been at this longer than the Trojan War. The bottom line is the West cannot wait any longer for Congress to send them some help and repair — for the long-term — this broken system that shortchanges prevention and adds fuel to these raging wildfires,” Wyden said.

The senator’s approach to firefighting funding makes sense and growing numbers of federal, state and local officials are backing the concept. It’s just one solution. Another is found in what to do about the huge numbers moving into the wildland-urban interface. That’s the imaginary line where experts say people ought not be living.

Since the 1960s the Census Bureau says the numbers in the interface have gone from 25 million to 140 million.

Part of the solution can be found in Deschutes County, Oregon. It is the fastest growing county in the nation. Officials and citizens there have embraced Project Wildfire. It has a goal of removing flammable material and debris from areas around homes. Enough room — 30 to 50-feet — is set up between housing and fire-prone areas to limit sparks catching structures on fire. To accomplish the goal officials have used public education, community outreach, landscape restoration and an aggressive approach when fire breaks out.

It’s working. No home has caught fire since 2003. That compares to similar-sized counties in neighboring state Washington where fires in Chelan and Okanogan counties have burned over 100 structures in 2015 alone.

Retired Ventura County, California fire chief Bob Roper agrees with the strategy and said, “Everything that they’re doing can be replicated somewhere else.” He now lives in Deschutes County and doesn’t think this will ever happen in his home town.

“A typical homeowner in L.A. seeing smoke on the horizon will just say, ‘I hope it doesn’t come near my house, and if it does, I hope somebody takes care of it,’” he said.

While many are praising Project Wildfire, Central Oregon Landwatch executive director Paul Dewery isn’t a fan. He said, “It gives people a false sense of security — all we have to do is implement the Firewise standards and we’ll be safe. Everything is going to burn. It’s just a matter of when and with what intensity.”

The solution — Dewery and his group are pushing — is stricter regulation. “The cities and the county should be saying any time you remodel your house, you have to use fire-resistant materials. However, a large number of people have moved specifically to this area because they didn’t want to have to deal with rules and regulations,” he said.

 

Source links: PropertyCasualty360.com, Los Angeles Times, KTLA, OregonLive.com, New York Times

Tags:  2017 Wildfires Raged — Solutions in 2018  Insurance Content  Insurance Industry  Insurance News  Weekly Industry News 

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