Protecting Your Business from Wildfires

There are currently about 60 large wildfires burning in the United States, mostly in western states. But a combination of high temperatures and dry and windy conditions can make wildfires a threat almost anywhere. Adding to the situation is the fact that more and more businesses are expanding into the wildland-urban interface (WUI)—wildfire-prone areas where homes and businesses are located. This creates a growing wildfire risk to businesses, according to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IIBHS).

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America lists the most expensive U.S. wildfires to date, all in western states:

To protect buildings from wildfires, IIBHS recommends that businesses survey the materials and design features of their structures; as well as the types of plants used, their location and maintenance.

Organizations also should determine their fire hazard severity zone (FHSZ) by evaluating the landscape, fire history in the area and terrain features such as slope of the land. Organizations can request the FHSZ rating from local building or fire officials in their area.

IIBHS notes three sources of wildfire ignition:

  1. Burning embers, or firebrands, generated by a wildfire and made worse in windy conditions.
    • Embers can ignite in several ways: By igniting combustible construction materials directly when accumulating on or immediately adjacent to them. Combustible construction materials are those that ignite and burn such as wood, plastic, and wood-plastic products used in decking and siding. By igniting nearby plants and accumulated debris such as pine needles or other combustible materials such as a wood pile. By entering a building through openings, such as an open window or attic vent, and ignite combustible items inside the building.
  1. Direct flame contact from the wildfire
  2. Radiant heat emanating from the fire

It is critical to assess a building’s construction, including roofs, windows, vents and exterior walls, also important is the area surrounding a structure, including trees and plants, IIBHS said.

A defensible space zone around the building will reduce the risk of fire. This includes consideration of specific types of plants and how they are grouped and maintained.

Plant characteristics associated with higher combustibility include:

  • Narrow leaves or needles (often evergreen)
  • Volatile resins and oils, as indicated by leaves that have an aromatic odor when crushed
  • Accumulation of fine, twiggy, dry, or dead material on the plant or on the ground under the plant
  • Loose or papery bark that often falls off and accumulates on the ground (such as palms and eucalyptus).

Santa Barbara Fire: A Costly Disaster

Though the wildfire in Santa Barbara county has been mostly contained, damage estimates continue to rise. Authorities say 77 homes have been destroyed — nearly double what was originally estimated — in the affluent Southern California area of Jesusita.

The median home value for the Jesusita area is just over USD 500k, but it does contain a number of multi-million dollar mansions—several of which reportedly have been destroyed. Buildings in the area are constructed of stucco walls and chimney finishes, have shed (flat) roofs covered with low-pitched clay tile and terra cotta or cast-concrete ornaments. The homes generally have little cleared area separating them from the surrounding vegetation, which consists of an equal mix of chaparral, brush, and conifers. In many cases, even homes that do have partial setbacks will be affected by encroaching flames, depending on the direction of the fire and accompanying winds.

The blaze is 65% contained and all but 375 residents from 145 homes had been allowed to move back in. Insured losses from this fire are expected to be large, but residents of California are no strangers to insurance claims resulting from wildfires. As the Insurance Information Institute reports:

Nine of the ten largest wildfires, in terms of insured property losses, occurred prior to 2007, according to ISO data. A 1991 wildfire in Oakland, California tops the list with $ $2,687 in insured losses in 2008 dollars. In October 2007 a series of wildfires broke out across Southern California, damaging thousands of homes and causing widespread evacuations. The largest of these fires, the October 21 Witch fire, resulted in $1.4 billion in insured losses and was the second most damaging wildfire since 1970, in 2008 dollars.

shutterstock_wildfire