Zurich North America’s report on California wildfires: Investing in resilience is key

By Max Dorfman, Research Writer, Insurance Information Institute

A new report by Zurich North America, in collaboration with DuPont and the nonprofit Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET-International), examines the ever-increasing risk of wildfires in California. Based on a study utilizing Zurich’s  Post-Event Review Capability methodology, “California fires: Building resilience from the ashes” draws from research and interviews with those affected by the fires in addition to civic and nonprofit representatives involved in risk reduction, response and recovery. The report seeks answers to why these fires have become so hazardous, and the ways in which communities can become more resilient.

The Deadliest Fires Yet

Fires are becoming more frequent in California, with an increasing number of people living closer to affected areas. The state suffered the largest and most destructive wildfires in state history in 2017 and 2018. The 2018 Camp Fire alone claimed the lives of 86 people and devastated the town of Paradise.

With this danger in the “wildland-urban interface”—essentially where hazardous wildlands meet homes and businesses—residents and business owners need to understand their risk. Education is essential to protect these areas. “Education is one of the first steps to help residents take necessary precautions against wildfires,” said Marcel Milani, Global Strategy Leader, Resilient Construction, DuPont. “Once business and homeowners understand what’s at risk, and that they are in control of building site retrofits that could save their property and their lives, they will invest in change.”

California is Taking Steps to Limit the Next Big Fire

California has developed Fire Hazard Severity Zone Maps to demonstrate the areas that have the greatest probability and intensity of potential wildfires. These maps help show which homes need to meet Chapter 7A of the California Building Code, which requires homes be built to certain fire-safe standards. Paradise which has experienced multiple fires since 2008, provides an important example of why this is so significant. Homes built in compliance with Chapter 7A codes tended to fare better than those built before 2008, when the codes were put in place. Of the 350 homes built to the Chapter 7A code in Paradise, 51 percent survived compared to 18 percent of the 12,100 homes built before 2008.

However, in some cases, the rising cost of homes and increasing population leads to communities that, according to the report, are “disproportionately of lower socioeconomic status, elderly or otherwise more vulnerable.” The costs of fire-resistant structures mean fire-resistant homes likely need to be built alongside retrofitted buildings. Indeed, the report found that perceived cost was one reason 7A codes were not adopted. And for vulnerable populations, there needs to be help. “Reducing the costs of retrofitting homes and buildings to fire-resistant standards would be a step in the right direction,” said Karen MacClune, Ph.D., Executive Director for ISET-International. “Providing funding or low-cost loans for the most vulnerable would support them to take action.”

Pushing the Conversation Forward

Despite California instituting new building codes and statewide fire hazard mapping, the study recommends that further practices need to be undertaken. Other key takeaways from the report include:

  • There needs to be more data on benefits and costs of mitigation that could in turn help set priorities
  • There continues to be development in high-risk areas, further amplifying the risk and danger of these fires
  • Many Californians impacted by fire are slow to take actions to reduce their risk
  • There needs to be more preparation for a fire’s aftermath
  • Mechanisms are required to ensure adequate insurance

All of this leads back to the core concept of resilience.

“With resilience, it’s about minimizing impact, avoiding impact or shortening impact. Our job as an insurance provider is to make someone whole after an event,” said Ben Harper, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Zurich North America. “Proper resiliency planning differs based on the customer and the region, among other variables. But it shares a common thread: action before an event.”

 

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