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).

Wildfires Blaze through Western U.S. and Canada

Following a wet spring, at least six western states are now fighting wildfires, which have been intensified by extremely high temperatures, wind gusts and lightning.

In northern California, about 4,000 people evacuated and more than 7,000 were told to prepare to leave as fires burned in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire has burned nearly four square miles, injured four firefighters and destroyed at least 10 structures so far, fire spokeswoman Mary Ann Aldrich told The Oregonian. The area burning was southeast of Oroville, where recently spillways in the nation’s tallest dam began crumbling from heavy rains, leading to evacuation of 200,000 residents downstream.

More than 14 fires are burning in Nevada and a state of emergency was declared in Arizona. While a 15-square-mile fire is partially under control in Montana, hot, dry weather and thunderstorms are threatening.

Other states including Oregon, Washington, Idaho and New Mexico are either battling fires or monitoring conditions in order to prevent them.
Western Canada is also seeing its share of wildfires. Evacuations are in effect for up to 10,000 residents in British Columbia, as 17 fires burn.

Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer for the British Columbia Wildfire Service, told the Vancouver Sun that gusty winds and hot, dry conditions are expected to continue for days.

“Unfortunately, in terms of the weather forecast, we’re not really seeing any reprieve in the immediate future,” he said. Skrepnek noted that 572 fires have started and that 98,842 acres have burned since April 1. About 1,000 firefighters are currently on the front lines.
Residents of Fort McMurray, Canada, who saw major losses after a fire last year burned for months, are still rebuilding. Risk Management Magazine reported in September that the fire became the largest and most expensive natural disaster in Canada’s history, surpassing floods in Alberta in 2013. The Fort McMurray wildfire charred more than 1.43 million acres of land and destroyed at least 10% of the city, including more than 2,400 homes, businesses and other structures.

Commercial and personal damages from the wildfire are estimated at $6 billion, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada. Thomas Johansmeyer, assistant vice president of property claim services strategy and development at Verisk Insurance Solutions, said the preliminary estimate for insured losses has come in at $3.5 billion (CAN $4.6 billion). Oil sands losses are included in the commercial component of the estimate.

To help people who are currently displaced in British Columbia, residents of Fort McMurray are rallying to collect and deliver much needed supplies. They are filling trailers with item requested, including water, bandages, eye drops, energy drinks, department store and gas station gift cards, sunscreen and toilet paper, and delivering them to British Columbia residents in need.

Planning for Extreme Floods

Flooding

Companies in the United States should begin preparing now for climate change, which is predicted to cause extreme weather conditions, according to FM Global’s report, The Impact of Climate Change on Extreme Precipitation and Flooding. As the climate warms, areas that are dry will become drier and moist areas will see higher precipitation. The characteristics of precipitation will also change. “We feel cli­mate change not so much through subtle changes in the mean, but through changes in the extremes,” MIT Prof. Kerry Emanuel said in the report.

While the overall amount of precipitation might remain the same, it will become less frequent but more intense. A specific region of the country that has historically seen 10 inches of rain each May might see the same volume that month, for example, but those 10 inches may occur in a much shorter period of time, increasing the risk of flooding, according to the study.

By the end of the century, as temperatures rise, it is possible for precipitation to change by 8%, which could exacerbate wildfires in some areas and flooding in others. The danger is that, because these extreme events are infrequent, they lack urgency, so planning can easily be put off. Risk managers are advised to check their facility’s resilience in terms of the building’s ability to withstand flooding, focusing on 500-year flood levels rather than 100-year.

Extreme wet or dry conditions can affect a company’s buildings, machinery, data centers, transportation networks, supply chains, people and sales. Organizations should focus on water management—diverting water from property, optimizing drainage and protecting water supplies, and they should consider new weather extremes when managing supply chains.

Flood hazard mapping is increasingly proving helpful as understanding of water risk is improving, Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research with FM Global, wrote in “Mitigating Evolving Water Threats,” from this month’s Risk Management Magazine. Advances in technology have led to improvements in weather satellites, geospatial data acquisition and physical model development, making old models obsolete. Anyone working with information from a flood map that is more than 15 years old should consider an update, he wrote.

Those with a flood map should make sure it includes potential coastal flooding areas as well as river flooding, also taking into account the local topography of coastal locations. “Areas along the coast that are surrounded by hills and mountains will likely experience far more wind-blown water (storm surge), as the local terrain directs more water in spaces between steeper slopes,” Gritzo wrote.

Wildfires a Reminder to Update Disaster Preparedness Plans

Raging across the country, threatening businesses and residences alike, wildfires are a reality, burning a reported 1.9 million acres in the U.S. so far this year. West of Santa Barbara, firefighters have battled an intense fire for almost a week. Wildfires are also burning in Arizona and New Mexico. In Canada, the Fort McMurray blaze burned for weeks and scorched some 2,400 square miles of land—more than 1.4 million acres. In five of the past 10 years, in fact, wildfires have ranked among the top 20 worldwide loss events.

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Companies that haven’t already done so may want to assess the impact such a disaster could have on their business as well as what actions can be taken to mitigate damage. While most businesses believe they are prepared for a fire, especially if their building is equipped with fire alarms, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and an evacuation plan, these measures may not be enough when stress and confusion take over, according to Interstate.

Organizations could face utility interruption, impacting gas and phone syDocument recovery3stems; they may have flooding from sprinklers, which, mixed with soot, can cause other complications; there may be smoke damage, which can by carried throughout a building through air conditioning systems; and there can be chemical residue from fire suppression systems.

There also may be asbestos hazards from older building materials, ceiling and floor tiles and pipe insulation.

Planning ahead for data loss resulting from damaged computers and burned paper documents is also advised.

Interstate lists four questions companies need to ask in advance of such a disaster:
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