California’s Drought Is Over, but a New Report Shows Wildfire Risk is High for Millions

By | July 18, 2017

California’s drought-ridden feet aren’t out of the proverbial fire yet.

This years’ powerful winter storms ended perpetual discourse about the state’s multiyear drought, but there are still 4.5 million homes at high or extreme risk of wildfire in California and other parts of the West, according to a risk analysis report issued today by Verisk Insurance Solutions.

Verisk’s 2017 FireLine State Risk report shows the risk of wildfire losses remains significant. The report summarizes wildfire risk in 13 wildfire-prone states and identifies the number and percentage of homes at highest risk for wildfire.

The top five states identified in the report with the most households at high or extreme risk from wildfire are California (more than 2 million households), Texas (715,300), Colorado (366,200), Arizona (234,600) and Idaho (171,200).

California has had another early start to its fire season, which traditionally occurs closer to October. And several fires have been burning throughout the Western U.S.

A wildfire burning in central California tripled in size Monday, forcing evacuations. In Northern California, a 900-acre wildfire in Mendocino County also triggered evacuations, and crews continue to struggle with a 28-square-mile fire that has been burning for more than a week in the mountains of Santa Barbara County. It is 49 percent contained after destroying 16 homes.

A report from Verisk Insurance Solutions shows California leads the nation with the most households at high or extreme risk from wildfire.

The Verisk report shows that more than 2 million housing units in California are at high or extreme risk from wildfire, and 1.6 million households are at moderate risk from wildfire.

Arindam Samanta, director of product management and innovation for Verisk Insurance Solutions, said that both insurers and insureds should take note that so many properties in California fall into the high or extreme risk classification.

“Historically, the majority of property losses from wildfires, about 80 to 90 percent, take place in those areas,” Samanta said.

Los Angeles County alone has 441,300 households that fall into the worst risk classification. Other counties at the top of the list were San Diego, San Bernardino, Ventura and Alameda.

Montana led the nation with the highest percentage of households at high or extreme risk of wildfire (28 percent), followed by Idaho (26 percent), Colorado (17 percent), California (15 percent) and New Mexico (14 percent).

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the number of acres burned by wildfires in the region is up more than 34 percent this year over 2016 and far above the 10-year average (3.1 million acres).

Roughly 4.4 million acres have reportedly been scorched in the Western U.S. so far this year.

Wildfires have generated more than $5.1 billion in insured losses in the last decade, with $3 billion alone in just the past five years, Samanta noted.

He said rising trends like this are often related to dryness, an earlier spring and other factors that can affect fire seasons from year to year, including possibly the climate itself.

“According to some studies on climate change, there is a progressive pattern of drying and warming in the Southwest and other parts of the United States, which could continue into the future,” Samanta said.

Continued development in and around the wildland-urban interface that puts properties in and around forested areas is also a contributing factor, he added.

“All of these factors create conditions that could play out in the kind of losses that your seeing today or in the future for example,” he said.

Verisk conducted its wildfire risk analysis using its FireLine wildfire risk management tool. FireLine uses remote sensing, machine learning, and digital mapping technology to determine the impact of three factors that contribute to wildfire risk: fuel, the vegetation surrounding the property; slope, or grade of the land; and site-access, identifying potential challenges to reach properties via roads or other pathways for fire suppression during wildfires.

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