As I sit in my home office outside of Baltimore, I can smell the eerie scent of burning wood. The thick gray haze over the Chesapeake Bay drastically limits the view of the passing ships. I am reminded that the impact of climate change on wildfires is not limited to those close enough to see their forests and homes decimated by this tremendous force. Even individuals like me – a thousand miles south – are feeling the impact of this catastrophic event which has caused reduced air quality and health risks to our most vulnerable populations. The Canadian Wildfires vividly demonstrate that climate change is an unstoppable and formidable force, intensifying its influence on previously unaffected communities.
Though many forest fires are part of prescribed burns, the wildfires in Canada represent an entirely different scenario. According to the Canadian National Wildland Fire Situation Report, as of this publishing, there have been more than 4,285 wildfires in Canada, burning over 27 million acres and displacing tens of thousands from their homes. In the US, California typically leads in wildfire severity and economic losses, but there is hope that this wildfire season may be shorter and more manageable due to the increased rain and snow this past winter.
The Influence of Climate Change
While we expect to see some variation year over year, the overall trending data indicates that climate change has tremendously impacted the severity and frequency of wildfires across North America. A recent study published in July 2022 by the International Journal of Wildland Fires shows fire trends between 1980 and 2020 and concludes that climate change is the primary driver of wildfires in California. Dry, hot air and more frequent extreme temperatures result in more intense burning and longer wildfire seasons throughout the state. A recent study published this June in the Journal of Environmental Research Letters details that extraction and burning of fossil fuels has raised global temperatures and, therefore, increased drier areas throughout the country, resulting in an increased vulnerability to fire.
While more than 8 out of 10 wildfires are caused by people – as per federal data provided by the National Park Service – once the fire has begun, the warmer temperatures and drier conditions make the spread more severe.
Apart from alterations in humidity and temperature, the phenomenon of climate change has contributed to the expansion of specific species, which in turn affects the intensity of wildfires. For example, the changing conditions have facilitated the proliferation of the mountain pine beetle throughout the western United States. This beetle has been responsible for the deterioration and demise of trees across its territory, literally adding fuel to the wildfires that occur increasing their speed and scale of devastation.
Wildfires directly impact homes, businesses, and infrastructure. Since 2000, 15 forest fires in the United States have caused at least $1 billion in damages each. In the last five years, 25,000 homes have been destroyed by Californian wildfires, leading to a record $11.7 billion in wildfire insurance claims.
The increase in wildfire-related losses has led State Farm, the largest insurer of auto and home in the US, to stop underwriting all new lines of wildfire insurance in California. State Farm cites the state's increased risk of wildfires and the high rebuilding costs have made insuring the risk untenable. Other insurers may follow suit. This reduction in market capacity means that property owners may struggle to find coverage and will need to pay more when they do.
While property owners may not be able to control where wildfires occur or how insurance rates might fluctuate, there is much that a building owner can do to mitigate the impact of the wildfire on their property and, by extension, make the property easier to insure.
How Data Can Help
Archipelago allows building owners to view specific building attributes that may help to mitigate or exacerbate the impact of wildfires at the individual property level or portfolio. Attributes like distance to the nearest building, building materials, and hazard zone/class all correlate to risk in the event of a wildfire, some of which can be mitigated. Glass type, as an example, can impact the spread of fire based on temperature resistance. By providing simple yet valuable data on such attributes, Archipelago can provide feedback on the risk associated and how it could impact a property or portfolio if mitigations were implemented. Additionally, the wildfire zone and wildfire hazard class are clearly delineated for each structure on Platform, allowing the building or portfolio owner to estimate the likelihood of a wildfire occurring near their property.
Although we can take measures to reduce the potential loss of future buildings, it remains evident that the greatest vulnerability lies with the existing structures. As the frequency and severity of wildfires are expected to increase, it is imperative that we modify our built environment to align with and withstand the evolving climate and the surrounding environment in which we reside.
Additional Support on this article by: Grace Bank (Structural Engineer at Archipelago); Nikita Chauhan (Structural Engineering Manager)