Eclipse Sheds Light On Western Wildfires

Jones Fire-INCIWEB

Just before American news reporters could excitingly begin covering the total solar eclipse from Oregon on Monday morning, they had to acknowledge the wildfire smoke caught by their cameras. “Wildfire Threatening the View” was one brief TV headline leading into the eclipse’s coverage. It was threatening a little more than that.

At least 600 residents of Milli, Oregon were forced from their homes due to a mandatory evacuation starting on Aug. 18. The Milli fire began Aug. 15 and has since burned nearly 7,000 acres just nine miles west of Sisters, a town in the path of the total solar eclipse, according to Central Fire Info.

Thanks to the once-in-a-lifetime event, the growing hazard received some much-needed national attention.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there are currently 43 active wildfires burning in the U.S., mostly in western states. With a growing number of residences and businesses expanding into wildfire-prone areas, the risk for injury and death is high. Between civilian and firefighter casualties and injuries, property damage and a host of other concerns, it seems like the potential losses outweigh most other reasons to fight them head on.

In response to the continuing threat of wildfires, experts and authorities have presented solutions that should not tempt mother nature too much.

Light Your Own Or Let It Burn

Controlled or prescribed burns are the preemptive technique that can decrease the likelihood of serious, hotter fires. They are fires started by authorities in strategic locations that eliminate dead trees and other conditions wildfires thrive on, and are easily extinguishable.

This method has been successful in certain parts of the U.S., such as Ohio, when in 2015 it played a critical role in maintaining healthy landscapes. Prescribed burns do present their own set of liability risks, however, with smoke’s effect on air quality and people’s health chief among them. Those and other environmental reasons influenced the nearly entire suspension of the practice in British Columbia in 2003. But the method has found a resurgence among B.C.’s firefighting authorities. A former Parks Canada controlled burn coordinator recently said that “people do not understand the benefits of burning,” and warned that suppressing a forest’s natural cycle, which includes fire, creates the conditions for mega-fires.

In a similar vein, the Los Angeles Times recently suggested letting the fires burn out to avoid firefighter casualties, citing statistics showing there is little that authorities can do once a fire has spread.

The New York Times echoed those sentiments, noting that some scientists have suggested redirecting funds from firefighting into projects that fireproof homes, which could better ensure community safety.

A 2016 report published by CoreLogic revealed that 1.8 million homes across 13 Western states are at extreme or high risk of wildfire damage. Additionally, according to ISO Mitigation 60% of all new housing units in the U.S. have been built on the edges of forests since 1999. With this data in mind, it might be time to invoke strategies that anticipate and harness wildfires rather than relying on reactive ones.

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.