Wildfires Ravage Southern California

A state of emergency has been declared in California as an out of control wildfire spreads through the Los Angeles foothills. It has been reported that the fire “nearly doubled in size overnight” with total acreage burned amounting to 35,000.

“These fires are still totally out of control,” California Gov. Schwarzenegger said at the fire’s command post in Lakeview Terrace. “This is a huge and very dangerous fire. The fire is moving very close to homes and to structures.”

The fires are currently threatening more than 12,000 buildings and residents of 10,000 homes have been told to evacuate. 2,000 firefighters are working to contain the blaze as the weather forecast projects continued hot, dry weather. Two firefighters died Sunday when their vehicle rolled off a hillside near Mount Gleason in the Angeles National Forest.

The most costly wildfire to date is the 1991 Oakland, California fire, which resulted in estimated insured losses of $2.7 billion (in 2008 dollars). The National Interagency Coordination Center lists the top ten states for wildland fires, ranked by number of fires for 2008:

  1. Texas                        16,713       1,570,586
  2. California                  5,812          1,339,839
  3. Oklahoma                 5,572          196,563
  4. Georgia                     5,454          23,081
  5. North Carolina          4,414           95,938
  6. Alabama                   3,103           32,447
  7. Florida                      2,939           156,102
  8. South Carolina         2,626           15,751
  9. Mississippi               1,898           27,399
  10. Arizona                     1,850           85,496

The Insurance Information Institute states that “most of the large fires with significant property damage have occurred in California, where some of the fastest developing counties are in forest areas.” Stay tuned as we continue to post updates on the wildfire situation, and the losses resulting from it.

Storm Summary 6

Welcome to the fifth “Storm Summary” post of the hurricane season. Each Friday from now until the official end of the season (November 30) I will post an update on past and present storms, like the following:

Ana TD 28-May Mid Atlantic  None 
Blanca TS 7/6 to 7/8 East Pacific None 
Carlos Cat. 1 7/10 to 7/16 East Pacific None 
Dolores TS 7/15 to 7/17 East Pacific None 
Enrique TS 8/4 to 8/7 East Pacific None 
Felicia Cat.  4 8/3 to 8/11 East Pacific None 
Guillermo Cat. 3 8/12 to 8/19 East Pacific None 
Bill Cat. 4 8/15 to 8/24 Mid Atlantic  No major damage
Claudette TS 8/16 to 8/18 Gulf of Mexico No major damage
Danny TS 8/26 to present Mid Atlantic  None 


Tropical Storm Danny is on everyone’s radar as the well-developed storm hugs the eastern seaboard, with its current path projecting a rare New England landfall. The last major storm to hit the northern United States was Hurricane Hanna in 2008, which wreaked havoc with major flooding in Westchester County, New York. The storm also knocked out power to 32,000 on Long Island. 

A tropical storm watch remains in effect for the North Carolina coast.

Though the Atlantic has only seen three named storms, the waters of the Pacific are seeing constant activity, due, in part, to El Niño, which is “the periodic warming of central and eastern tropical Pacific waters [that] occurs on average every two to five years and typically lasts about 12 months.” Although most people think of this phenomenon in negative terms for the damage it can spur on the West Coast, it is actually beneficial to the East Coast/Gulf Coast in the sense that warmer waters in the Pacific usually create conditions that suppress Atlantic hurricanes. Why exactly this occurs is not something I’m qualified to explain but, as I recall, it has something to do with warm and cool air mixing in a different way and creating a “wind shear” that helps prevent storms from developing. The International Research Institute for Climate and Society can probably explain it better.

For constant, up-to-date storm information, visit NOAA. And for breaking information on the insured losses the storms create, check out the Insurance Information Institute and the Insurance Services Office.

Most importantly, don’t forget to check back next Friday for our seventh “Storm Summary” installment.


ABA Warns of Fraud

The American Bankers Association has issued a news release stating that an individual or group of people claiming to be a part of the ABA are sending out letters as a part of a fake check scam. The letters contain a phone number, which people must call to find out how to collect the prize — a ploy to get personal information from the caller. Many of the letters also contain fraudulent checks for amounts between $1,000 and $5,000.

ABA is asking anyone who receives any type of fraudulent phone call, letter or email to contact alert@aba.com.

MacroShares — Betting the House

Playing the financial markets is risky, and playing with housing derivatives is even more risky, as we’ve seen. But what if there was an exchange-traded stockssecurity for retail investors — a derivative, but one without the derivative stigma attached to it?

That would be MacroShares, the brainchild of famed economists Robert Shiller and Karl Case. The securities reflect the value of the (already widely used) S&P/Case-Schiller home price index in ten large urban areas. Now that it is available, investors everywhere have the option of investing in the housing market, without taking on the exorbitant risk offered by previous instruments. As The Economist states:

The idea has merit. For most people, their homes are their largest single investment. Finding a way to hedge that investment makes sense. Falling prices are accentuated in illiquid markets such as residential property. Having some protection against price falls should reduce concerns over paper losses.

MacroShares are unique in that they offer two different investment options — DMM (MacroShares housing down) and UMM (MacroShares housing up), which is, just as the name states, the option to bet on the downward or upward movement of house prices. Though trading in both are has remained relatively light, there is some good news — more people are betting on UMM than DMM.