When the flames ceased and the smoke cleared 476 homes and other personal property were burned—some property completely destroyed. The homeowners, who lived in Bastrop County, Texas, just east of Austin, were devastated by last year’s wildfire that consumed their homes and precious belongings.
The Bastrop Fire claimed the record for the highest amount of homes lost in a single fire in the state’s history. The destructive blaze cost a total of $325 million in insured losses. As high temperatures and severe draught are blamed for the wildfires in Texas, a booming population moving into the moutnatins and foothills of the the Rocky Mountain Region is creating more risk, proving that wildfires are no longer a regional threat. The picturesque scenes of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico landscapes are too tempting to resist. Meanwhile a growing threat rumbles throughout these areas snuffing out the beautiful scenes and families’ dreams.
According to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) catastrophic fires account for 2.2 percent of insurance losses, compared to 26 percent for tornadoes, 46.3 percent for hurricanes and tropical storms, 7.5 percent for terrorism, 7.8 percent for winter storms, 6.4 percent for earthquakes, and 3.1 percent for wind/hail damage.
Wildfires have grown, however, from being regional or seasonal problems as the wildfire season throughout the U.S. often runs the entire year and in a variety of locations.
“At one time, wildfires were burning continuously in the state of Texas over an 18-month time span,” says Lamont Norman, global product manager/insurance risk data for Pitney Bowes Software. “It’s no longer a seasonal issue. It’s also not a regional issue.”
Pitney Bowes recently announced the launch of the first national wildfire risk software solution for the insurance sector. The Pitney Bowes Risk Data Suite Wildfire Bundle for property and casualty (P&C) insurers is available for commercial and private markets.
California is the leader in terms of wildfire loss, but in recent years fires have caused extensive damage in Colorado; Austin, Texas; and Oklahoma. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 82,000 wildfires occurred across 10 million acres in the U.S. last year.
The Underwriting Process
Insurers can now attribute accurate wildfire risk ratings during the underwriting process to any commercial or private location in the U.S. Underwriting calculations can integrate wildfire risk in much the same way they account for flood risk to establish correct policy pricing.
Norman pins part of the blame for the fires on a global climate change, but he also points to the encroachment on the wild land/urban interface as another factor.
“Fires are becoming more threatening and prevalent,” he says. Norman maintains the science behind fire risk modeling has been inferior. Most models were based on what was fueling the fires, such as the vegetation grown in a particular area.
The data suite supports cat modeling with fire behavior science provided by Anchor Point Group Fire Management Consultants. Pitney Bowes is working with Anchor Point to change the sophistication of fire risk modeling.
“Most of that has to do with bringing in fire behavior science,” says Norman. “[Anchor Point] has a fire behavior analyst on staff. There are only 42 of these analysts in the U.S. Forty work with FEMA, one doesn’t care about insurance, and the other is working with Anchor Point Group.”
Norman compares these analysts to someone who has a PhD: “They are few and far between,” he says. “That experience is brought to bear with this solution. Anchor has been doing this kind of work for more than 10 years. They go into communities and determine where the wildfire risk truly is.”
Bill Sinn, strategic industry director in the insurance practice at Pitney Bowes, feels the technology will prove invaluable for insurers operating in areas where wildfires are a distinct possibility.
“With Anchor Point and the solution we created, [modeling] gets to a granular level,” says Sinn. “Carriers are constantly looking for better ways to price possibilities and looking at their risks. This solution is more detailed in identifying those risks and allowing them to mitigate the risk.
In 2011, damage from wildfires reached the fourth-highest total in history. The problem is compounded by the large shift in population to areas that have a higher propensity for wildfires—mountainous regions and areas close to forests.
“With this model you can get a more accurate and defined view of what those risks are,” says Sinn.
The good news for insurers is there is a lot of information on wildfires that is accessible; unfortunately, much of it has gone unused, according to Norman.
“As wildfires become a more national problem, this is an opportunity for us to come up with a better solution for the market,” says Norman. “We have turned this into a more precise, predictable, and understandable solution than what we currently see in the market.”