By Jared Shelly
Scenario: The fire started deep in the Belmont Mountains. Nobody knew. Two weeks later, it was national news.
Lightning had struck a forest in the Arizona mountain range and the smoldering remains turned into a full-fledged fire after embers combined with dried shrubbery nearby.
It hadn't rained in weeks -- ever since that eerie day last month when it poured for five hours straight. The temperature was near 100 degrees. Again. And humidity was non-existent. In fact, the area was in the midst of a five-year drought that caused vegetation to dry up and water reservoirs to run terrifyingly low. The wind was so strong that citizens in the area often said it felt like a hairdryer blowing on your skin.
By the time the Maricopa County Fire Department even got a call about the blaze, it had been burning for four days -- and was picking up strength. Meanwhile, people in the budding town of Mesa outside of Phoenix continued on with their normal routines. Just like many urban centers in this part of the country, Mesa spread farther and farther into the natural landscape. This was not New York. Cities expand horizontally out West.
Plenty of businesses had followed. At the very edge of the town sat a burgeoning technology company that designed the new all-glass casing for the iPhone 7s and created the virtual reality hardware for the PlayStation 5. A large cold-storage facility sat next door and down the road was the headquarters for a popular line of candy. The large office park across the way had just reached capacity and construction workers were still putting the finishing touches on a new road connecting it to the highway.
The wind continued pushing the fire east and it began to spread, growing larger and larger with each branch, bush and tree it gobbled up in its path. It was now nearly a half mile long. Firefighters were dumbfounded. They tried shooting it with water but the slight water pressure on their hoses did nothing but fan the flames.
The photos and videos people were taking with their smartphones were extraordinary.
A scared populace watched the televised press conference with the Maricopa County Fire Chief as he outlined the various failed techniques the department had tried: Dropping water and chemicals from airplanes didn't work because the immense heat from the fire didn't allow the planes to fly low enough to make a precise hit. They tried to fan the flames away from the town center, but high winds foiled that plan. They even tried lighting a new fire, which would hit the other fire and
cancel each other out, but that only made things worse.
With no precipitation, the fire grew stronger. On Day 9, strong easterly winds pushed it right toward Mesa and its new urban business center. Workers were forced to evacuate.
The conflagration turned
into the nation's first urban wildfire on Day 11.
That's when it hit the edge of town and quickly ignited the first building in its path, the cold-storage facility, sparking the highly flammable chemicals inside and traveling to three nearby buildings. Meanwhile, the wind picked up embers and carried them to rooftops and dried vegetation in a neighborhood a quarter mile away, sparking a new set of fires.
Stretched thin, firefighters, who had to ration what little water they had, worked to put out the fires
in the burning homes. At the same time, they ordered up a fleet of airplanes to drop water and chemicals on the business center. It took two more days to put out the flames.
But the damage had been done. More than 400,000 acres were burned, while nearly 1,000 homes saw fire damage. An entire business center was destroyed. Experts estimated the total economic impact of the wildfire at $2 billion.
Analysis: Last year's events in Colorado left no doubt that droughts and wildfires are a lethal combination. More than 200,000 acres were burned, 600 homes were damaged and five people lost their lives. Insured loss estimates range from $450 million to $550 million.
In many cases, fires burned for days on end.
That group of fires was aided by one of the worst droughts in U.S. history, which robbed Colorado of critical snowpack in the winter, and often drove summer temperatures past 100 degrees. Other parts of the country fared no better, as 9 million acres were burned by wildfires nationwide in 2012, according to risk modeler AIR Worldwide.
And there's no relief in sight.
The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center indicated that the present drought is expected to continue at least through the end of May 2013. Officials in Colorado have already declared 2013 an extreme drought situation due to light snowpack. In Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, reservoir levels have fallen sharply, according to the New York Times. Normally unaffected areas like Nebraska and South Dakota even saw serious wildfire damage last year.
While anyone living through the 2012 wildfires may think that things couldn't possibly get worse, experts believe that wildfires may become much more severe as time goes by. If there were five or more consecutive years of severe drought (totally conceivable, say experts) it could set the table for even more violent wildfires and huge insured losses.
In fact, two of the most notorious wildfires (the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire and the 2003 Cedar Fire, both in California) came in the aftermath of five-year droughts. The Cedar Fire brought the second highest property losses in state history and burned 280,000 acres. The Oakland Hills Fire caused the most economic damage at $1.5 billion.
Wildfires are caused by a combination of certain factors -- lack of precipitation, high winds, dry soil and dry vegetation. They often spark from a lightning strike, a discarded cigarette or arson. The fire uses the dry vegetation as fuel and gains strength. High and sustained winds make the fires nearly impossible to control. Smoldering embers can also travel by wind, landing on rooftops or sparking shrubbery adjacent to homes or businesses.
It's important to note that drought is not a causal mechanism for wildfires, but it is an extreme aggravating circumstance, said Tomas Girnius, senior scientist at AIR Worldwide.
"Almost without exception, historical wildfires that have caused the greatest property loss have occurred after prolonged drought," said Girnius.
There is a little bit of good news. Since people are armed with cell phones, they tend to report fires more quickly, giving firefighters a better chance of putting out a blaze before it turns into a wildfire.
Also, airplanes and helicopters with the ability to drop water or chemicals on fires are becoming more sophisticated, said Omar Khemici, vice president of model development at EQECAT. Planes can drop increasingly larger amounts of water and not too far in the future, it may be possible to have unmanned drones do the same.
But the climate is simply not cooperating. Scientists argue that global warming is causing severe weather events -- like long periods of drought. Severe rain is also a byproduct. Rain is becoming more intense and more concentrated in certain areas, rather than more evenly spaced-out throughout the year.
"You're going to get intense rainfall one day then go a longer period of time without it," said Tom Jeffrey, senior hazard scientist at CoreLogic. "Areas that are somewhat dry will become drier as this goes on."
Meanwhile, urban development is stretching further and further into undeveloped areas, where wildfire risk is more pronounced. Not mincing words, Jeffrey called it "the biggest problem we have."
"Cities don't grow up any more, they grow out," he said. "You're always going to have this ring around the city proper."
That ring is more susceptible to wildfires that start in natural land. Such fires could grow to a half mile long, say experts, and some believe that a wildfire could engulf homes or businesses on the edge of a town. Then you've got an urban wildfire using houses as fuel.
Local firefighters often don't have the resources to fight such fires, as water reservoirs are low and hoses may not have adequate water pressure. While some cities like San Diego or Los Angeles have comprehensive irrigation systems and help educate residents about the importance of clearing brush to reduce fire risk, other cities and towns like those in New Mexico or Arizona may not be as sophisticated.
That means it will take water or chemicals dumped from airplanes and helicopters to put them out -- at a considerable expense. Another tactic is redirecting the fire away from urban centers or bulldozing ground so that it's moist and less likely to help fire spread.
When all else fails, pray for rain.
JARED SHELLY is the senior editor/web editor of Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 12, 2013
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