West Drought Conditions Make For ‘Tragically Historic’ Wildfire Season

By | June 13, 2012

In what could be shaping up to be one of the worst wildfire seasons in recent memory, insurers are scrambling to deal with the aftermath of several massive wildfires in the region – and they’re preparing people for the possibility of more wildfires to come.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nearly one-fifth of the U.S. fell under “severe to extreme” drought conditions as of the end of April, and much of that being in the West as well as Texas, areas where droughts were severe last year as well.

Colorado this year recorded its second warmest spring, and it’s fourth driest, while New Mexico experienced it’s third warmest recorded spring, according to NOAA.

“We’re really just at the start of our severe fire season,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. “Given our fire danger I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a tragically historic season.”

Massive wildfires continue to rage in New Mexico and Colorado, with smaller but significant fires throughout other Western states – some 20 wildfires are burning in nine Western states.

One of the most damaging so far is the High Park fire about a dozen miles west of Fort Collins, Colo., which has grown to more than 46,000 acres, and has destroyed at least 100 structures and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents.

Walker, who had just left a citizen briefing near the fire where close to 2,000 people had been evacuated, said they are still working to get a handle on insured losses.

“At this point we’re doing property assessments to try and identity what homes have been destroyed in the fire,” she said, adding that house-by-house assessments are being conducted to see how many structures will be added to the list of at least 100 structures confirmed destroyed so far.

“This fire is still very active and hot,” Walker added. “This fire is already in terms of acreage our third largest fire in the state’s history.”

Considering it’s still so early in the wildfire season, in terms of losses 2012 is shaping up to go on record as one of the largest, Walker said.

Insurance losses in Colorado of $217 million were reported from the Fourmile Canyon Fire in 2010, which topped the previous record of $46.1 million in insured losses from the Hayman Fire in 2002.

But this year with such a big fire so early on, the insured losses may be spread among several major fires, Walker said.

In 2002 Colorado experienced one of its worst fire seasons on record in terms of size and insured losses, and “in 2012, 10 years later, unfortunately it looks to be nearing that season, and as far as insurance dollars is probably going to outpace that season,” Walker said.

The West’s other menacing and active fire is in New Mexico, the state’s second massive ongoing fire. A 37,000-acre fire near Ruidoso has destroyed 234 structures. It’s 35 percent contained, with more than 1,100 personnel helping to fight the fire. The reported 84 degree temperatures and 10-20 mph winds gusting up to 30 mph aren’t expected to help much.

The fire has taken some public attention away from the largest fire on record in New Mexico, which at 280,075 acres is now 51 percent contained.

The fires have kept insurers and their response teams busy.

State Farm, which reportedly insures one of every five homes in Colorado, has received more than 20 claims, according to spokeswoman Angela Thorpe, who couldn’t offer any early estimates on insured losses.

Thorpe said many people are stopping by their mobile claims center near the High Park fire with questions, but “It’s hard to say how many are affected.”

State Farm, like other insurers, has a handful of people working fulltime to try and deal with claims and answer questions from its customers.

“We’ve had our claims teams here, our community relations specialist and myself for media relations,” she said.

Thorpe said based on reports more wildfires may be in store for the Western region.

“For the sake of our customers we hope this is the last one,” she said of the Colorado fire. “However, the dry conditions and numerous other components play a part in wildfire.”

Stephanie Howell, a spokeswoman for Allstate, which has also scrambled a response team to the High Park fire, said the drought is playing a major role in how this wildfire season is shaping up.

“It’s dry,” she said. “We are in a severe drought out here and everyone is aware of the dangers that presents. The Governor attended yesterday morning’s community briefing and made the same observation that it was dry and we need to be careful. With this fire and the fires in New Mexico still burning, it’s in everyone’s best interest to prepare themselves and their home.”

Allstate’s mobile claims center at an evacuation site and is gearing up to deal with an increased need for their services, Howell said.

“We have about seven people, eight if you count me, on site. Beginning tomorrow we will have catastrophe response vehicles in the area,” she said.

The vehicles, known as CRVs’ are equipped with technology to support claim field team members and provide connectivity to the insurer’s networks. This vehicle is a small and agile vehicle so it can navigate city streets and neighborhoods, as well as in and around the impacted areas to provide claim assistance.

“We have activated our catastrophe advertising letting impacted customers know how to contact us, our social media page is dedicated to pushing information about the fire and our response to followers and we’ve been able to secure time on each of the Denver area’s broadcast stations to share information,” she said.

As the wildfire season continues, people who have been dealing with fires for some time, say they’re concerns are turning to the other Western states which have been relatively quiet for now.

Jerry Davies, a spokesman for Farmers, which also has personnel on the scene at the fires in New Mexico, including claims teams, district managers and agents, said there are growing concerns over the wildfire potential in the coastal states.

“I read a report from California fire yesterday that California could be in for a very serious fire season,” Davies said. “There’re also major concerns in Oregon and Washington.”

While some blame the La Nin᷉a weather pattern currently being experience, a recently released report blames climate change.

According to a recent report “The Heat Is On: U.S. Temperature Trends,” which contends that the continental U.S. has warmed 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 100 years, many of the Western states rank among the fastest warming by decade.

Arizona, which has reportedly warmed .273 degrees per decade over the past 100 years, is the fourth fastest warming state in the report. Utah (.233 degrees) and Colorado (.225) also made the top 10 list. New Mexico (.177) was 15th, following Wyoming (.197), Nevada (.196) and Montana (.188) at 14th, 15th and 17th. Idaho (.166) and California (.161) were 22nd and 23rd, while Washington (.129) and Oregon (.128) were 26th and 27th on the list.

However, state’s not known for massive wildfires made the top three on the list. Rhode Island at .339 degrees per decade was No. 1 on the list, followed by Massachusetts (.300) and New Jersey (.280).

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