Up Next: California’s Wildfire Season

By | July 19, 2012

With Colorado’s and New Mexico’s record wildfire seasons freshly in mind, some experts are starting to take note that California’s wildfire season is nearing, and with that there are two main points to be made: the state’s wildfire season may start early, and there is a lot of unburned fuel out there.

There have been no major fires in California since 2007.

That’s what Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, first notes when he speaks about the state’s wildfire potential.

“That’s a good five years now,” Moraga said. “We’re keeping a close watch on this. Experts are saying this could be a very severe fire season.”

California’s wildfire season is typically ushered in on hot, dry winds known as Santa Annas, which come in late September and October with sustained wind speeds of 40 mph or more.

Wildfire model for California. Courtesy of RiskMeter.com.

In 2007 the Santa Annas fanned wildfires that burned 518,021 acres, destroying 3,107 structures, including 2,180 homes, according to IINC. Insured losses from the fires totaled $2.3 billion, according to the California Department of Insurance annual report. More than 38,000 claims resulted from the fires, many were smoke claims.

The state’s major fire season before that was the 2003 wildfires, in which 739,597 acres were burned, and 4,836 structures were destroyed, including 3,6041 homes. Insured losses totaled $2.37 billion, and 19,100 claims were filed.

“That’s a four-year difference between major wildfires,” Moraga said. “Now, we’re going on five years.”

Thanks to dry conditions and much of the West being categorized as being under drought-like conditions, the National Weather Service is forecasting higher-than-normal chances for severe fire seasons for many of the region’s states for the remainder of July.

“We’re looking at above average fire potential for much of the Great Basin,” said Heath Hockenberry, national fire weather program manager for NWS.

That means fire danger is currently high in states like Nevada, Idaho, Utah and Southeastern Oregon, which is connected to the Great Basin states in the NWS outlook because of similar topography and fuels.

Those states have been plagued with myriad smaller fires, but public attention has been drawn to the Colorado wildfires. The state’s two largest wildfires this year, which were only recently 100 percent contained, wreaked a reported $450 million in insured losses from damages that included 600 homes destroyed. Earlier in the summer New Mexico experienced its largest recorded wildfire, and Arizona has had its share of wildfires.

Starting as early as August, California will be the next state to be on alert, Hockenberry added.

“In August, September, October, we’re looking at above average (fire) potential for areas like the Sierra Nevadas,” he said.

That above normal potential area extends south to eastern San Diego, he added.

“Lack of precipitation in the winter is still straining the fuels,” Hockenberry said. “It looks like above normal potential for the rest of the season.”

Particularly high fire danger areas include Yosemite, Reno, and Northern California’s mountainous regions, Hockenberry said, adding that while dry weather and higher-than-normal temperatures are driving factors for the high fire danger, California’s large amount of fuel is its biggest threat.

This year “there are more dead and distressed fuels,” he said, crediting the handful of years the state has seen of average or below average wildfire seasons. “You get buildups of things that are ready to burn,” he added.

With 29 states currently in drought conditions, it’s hard to image that sales people are having their way with underwriters who want to maintain strict discipline about writing insurance in fire-prone areas, said Dan Munson, founder of Boston, Mass.-based risk analysis firm RiskMeter Online.

“People really start to pay attention to their underwriting rules,” he said.

That goes against the logic that it has been five years since a major fire season for California, and that it’s a soft market.

“Over time in soft markets people get short memories,” Munson said. “Salespeople tend to convince the underwriters that things are OK.”

However, the Colorado wildfire season may be helping a bit, and past lessons seem to be longer-learned in the industry nowadays, Munson added.

“Obviously in 2003 everyone got clobbered,” he said.

Then when 2007’s wildfire season came to bare, Munson figured insurers would once again be caught off guard.

“I was actually surprised,” he said. “The clients we worked with did pretty well. They didn’t fall back on their bad habits. In 2007 I was shocked when people said they kept their discipline. In California, I think people have been pretty firm with their rules.”

Such discipline – not just among those in the insurance industry, but from homebuilders, homeowners, and others – may be what experts are trying to convey by warning about the dangers of the 2012 fire season.

Earlier this week San Diego’s Fire-Rescue Department Chief Javier Mainar told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the state’s drier than usual winter has posed a potential fire danger in that area.

“Because of the lack of rains, we’re seeing drying in the hills we don’t typically see until September,” he told the newspaper. “Our fire danger is very high right now due to our lack of fuel moisture.”

But a little moisture won’t be enough, and any storms could even exacerbate the threat, said IINC’s Moraga.

The monsoonal moisture the mountainous and wooded areas of the state get in August often bring large amounts of rain in a short period that gets absorbed quickly.

“It’s not the kind of rain that’s going to make the brush less likely to catch fire,” Moraga said.

He also noted that such storms also bring higher chances of lighting, making matters worse, not better.

Topics California Catastrophe Natural Disasters Wildfire Colorado

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