Two of this blog’s four rotating headers depict a hurricane and a fire as examples of potentially-destructive types of property damage, and the hurricane season (June through November) and the wildfire season (late spring through mid-fall) are both well under way. This year has brought good news to the east coast with respect to the former and catastrophically bad news to the west coast with respect to the latter.
There are obviously many reasons for this. The west is undergoing a historically severe drought; the snowpack in California is currently 5% of what it should be. The region is also suffering from extreme heat; 2015 is the second warmest year ever recorded in Alaska, and temperatures in the west as a whole are now averaging two degrees hotter than they did in the 1980’s. This year’s “Godzilla” el Niño is also a factor, because that tends to heat the west coast but inhibit hurricane formation in the Atlantic basin.
Atlantic Ocean hurricanes were a major threat as recently as 10 years ago. 2005 saw 27 named storms, 15 of which became hurricanes. Since 2010, however, the average has fallen to only 12 named storms and 6 hurricanes a year, with only 3 of the latter reaching Category 3 (110 mph) status. Early August saw 2 of the most respected predictive models downgrade their estimates for 2015. On August 4th, Phil Klotzbach and William Gray of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Colorado University announced that this would be “a well-below normal Atlantic hurricane season” with some 8 named storms and only 2 hurricanes. Two days later, on August 6th, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration downgraded its forecast as well. NOAA now says there is a 90% chance that 2015 will be a below-normal season with some 6-10 named storms and only 1-4 hurricanes, with no more than one becoming a major storm. To date, there have been 4 named storms (Ana, Bill, Claudette, and Danny) and no hurricanes in the Atlantic basin.
With respect to wildfires, however, the last decade has seen a startling rise. Since 2007, 8 states (Florida, Georgia, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, California, Texas, and Colorado) have experienced the most destructive fires in their history. Wildfires make up only 2% of this country’s property and casualty insurance claims from natural disasters (for those interested, the balance of the list is as follows: 40% from hurricanes and tropical storms; 36% from tornadoes; 7% from snow and ice storms; 6% from terrorism; 5% from earthquakes; and 4% from hailstorms and floods). Wildfire claims should nonetheless be a concern to the insurance industry given the steadily rising trend and the fact that 140 million Americans and 40 million homes are now located in the so-called urban-wildfire interface.
The 2015 statistics are staggering. The National Interagency Fire Center currently reports that this year has seen over 40,000 fires that burned 7.1 million acres — an area bigger than the state of Massachusetts. It is the earliest time that more than 7 million acres have been consumed by mid-August in 20 years, and only the 10th time since 1960 when that many acres were destroyed by fire in a single year. It is sobering to realize that the fire season still has months to run. The record is 9.9 million acres in 2006, and we may well be on our way to surpassing that. By comparison, last year saw fires burn only 3.6 million acres.
According to the NIFC, 95 large fires are now burning in 10 states. For the first part of the fire season, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California saw the most activity, with major blazes like California’s Rocky Fire, which destroyed over 69,000 acres and 43 homes. Then the destructive swath moved east into Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. On Monday of this week, 35 large fires were burning in Idaho and Montana alone. The biggest fire in the country so far this year is the Soda Fire southwest of Boise, which broke out on August 10th and is currently being fought by 1,000 firefighters. The Soda Fire has spawned what are known as “firenadoes” – tornado-like columns of flame — and consumed over 284,000 acres so far.
August 13th saw the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group raise the Fire Preparedness Level to 5, which is the highest level there is, for the first time since 2008. In addition, resources are strained to the limit. The NIFC reports that nearly 30,000 firefighters are now on the fire lines, which is the biggest mobilization in 15 years. The U.S. Forest Service devoted 16% of its annual budget to firefighting activities 20 years ago. This year, for the first time in its 110-year history, it will spend over 50% of its budget fighting fires. If present trends continue, over two-thirds of its budget will go to firefighting by 2025. The Agriculture Secretary recently said that the organization is no longer a forest service but rather “a fire department.”
The situation is so dire that the U.S. Army is now deploying to the fire lines. For the first time since 2006, some 200 active duty military personnel — from the 17th Field Artillery Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington — have been mobilized as firefighters. More will undoubtedly follow. California is even using 4000 low-level felons from the state’s prison system to fire the blazes.