Recent wildfire seasons in Washington state have been intense, burning hundreds of thousands of acres and damaging or destroying homes and businesses. In this post, we interview a former wildland firefighter who now helps communities prepare for wildfire to learn more about how the growing Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) contributes to wildfire-related property risk.
We also learn what you, as an insurance professional, can do and how you can help your customers protect their property.
Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan is a program coordinator with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) wildfire division supporting the NFPA's Firewise program. Firewise helps communities take research-backed steps to work together to prevent wildfire losses.
Before joining the NFPA, she worked for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), first as a wildland firefighter, then as a firefighter crew leader and finally as a response and dispatch coordinator.
This home has many combustible items, including the shed, as well as a lot of vegetation in the area immediately surrounding it.
WSRB: What is important for insurers to know about the WUI and what it means?
Fitzgerald-McGowan: When we look at the WUI, it’s defined as a location, but it’s also a set of conditions related to the home and the immediate surroundings. If there’s a home that is in the WUI but has done everything recommended, it might not be as high a risk as another home that’s not in the WUI but hasn’t done as much.
WSRB: What are these conditions, and how do they affect property risk in the WUI?
Fitzgerald-McGowan: When we think about the conditions, it’s the state of the home. Is it in good repair? Is it built with fire-resistant materials? What is the condition of the roof? The type of roof? Is there a deck? If so, is it screened in so embers can’t penetrate?
That’s just the home. Then there’s the vegetation around it. There are three zones that we at the NFPA pay special attention to and recommend actions for. The Immediate zone is right around the home, from zero to five feet. The Intermediate zone is from five to thirty feet, and the Extended zone is from thirty to two hundred feet. We recommend different actions for each zone. Within the Immediate zone, for example, you want nothing combustible. As you work your way out from the home, you do other things to help prevent the spread of wildfire.
Learn more about the zones and NFPA’s recommended actions for each in our related blog post.
This home appears to have nothing combustible within about five feet, and the grass is trimmed
and well watered.
WSRB: What other factors around a home relate to wildfire risk?
Fitzgerald-McGowan: There are many community factors that matter. If you have one ignition in a community, it can be managed more easily than if you have multiple ignitions in a community.
Important community-related questions include: how close are homes to each other? What vegetation lies between them? What else is between them? For example, a wood fence can be a nice thing but can also act as a wick through a community. As another example, juniper shrubs are very pretty but also flammable.
If a lot of people in a community have done the work to reduce the volume of vegetation or to replace wood fences with non-combustible fences, embers don’t have receptive fuel, decreasing the chance of ignition.
WSRB: What’s unique about the WUI in Washington state?
Fitzgerald-McGowan: Western and Eastern Washington are very different in terms of vegetation, ecosystems and where and how people live. But both sides of the state are at risk of wildfire.
There has to be an individualized approach. Western Washington has much higher population density overall, and trees are mixed throughout communities. As a result, there’s a lot of home hardening done and a lot of ensuring fences and hedges are maintained. In Eastern Washington, a community within the WUI might be less densely populated and have more acres between homes. There, vegetation management is especially important, but we don’t want to overlook home hardening.
On both sides of the state, people should do both, but there might be more emphasis on one or the other, depending on the location.
WSRB: What has changed about the WUI over the years, especially here in Washington state?
Fitzgerald-McGowan: The big thing that’s changed is the growth. People are moving into the WUI and out of urban areas.
For Western Washington, there has been a lot of growth outside the normal urban corridors.
For Eastern Washington, there’s a lot of growth in certain areas, such as Wenatchee, Spokane, Twisp, Winthrop and others. A key challenge in those areas is that there are a lot more people in them but not a lot more year-round residents.
Many people are spending time in these locations for recreation, possibly renting or buying a vacation home. These people may not be aware of the risk or may not understand the important role they have to play in keeping the community safe. Owners of properties in these areas may not want to do essential property upkeep because they just want to relax.
WSRB: How do the unique characteristics of the WUI in Washington state and the changes in it over time relate to potential for property damage?
Fitzgerald-McGowan: If there are more people there, and people are not taking appropriate action, risk increases. Imagine a block of four homes. Three of the neighbors are all doing everything right, and they surround the fourth neighbor, who is doing nothing and has lots of downed trees and vegetation on the property, and hasn’t built the home with fire resistance in mind. The fourth neighbor’s property has the potential to be an ignition source and create risk for the three other properties.
The NFPA’s message about what’s necessary to protect a home from wildfire hasn’t changed since we started the Firewise program in 2002.
But with more people living or owning vacation property in the WUI, there tend to be more people who believe that the fire department response will be sufficient to protect their home or their insurance coverage will be sufficient to make them whole. The reality is that the fire department may not be able to save your home from a wildfire, and insurance coverage may not cover everything.
WSRB: What do you want property insurance professionals to know about the WUI?
Fitzgerald-McGowan: Insurers play such an important role in helping educate their customers. And, if insurance professionals know more about the science behind the NFPA recommendations, they can better understand the risk to specific properties.
For example, we recently had a conversation with a resident of a Firewise community in Northern California. His home is made of fire-resistant materials, and he’s done a lot of work around his home and worked with the local mitigation specialist from CalFire. But he had a tree through his deck.
That might immediately seem like a big risk, but from our perspective, that’s not necessarily so. If that tree is healthy and in good condition, the chance of it igniting is pretty low. It does generate a lot of needles that could be fuel, but if the homeowner is doing what he needs to do to clear those consistently, then that’s not a big risk.
The NFPA offers trainings and free materials that can help property insurance professionals learn more about these kinds of factors in wildfire property risk. We also have a strong base of professionals available to help answer your questions.
Our free materials about wildfire risk are available online, and information about our course on how to assess the ignition potential of a structure from wildfire is too.
Insurers can also contact us for more information about these and other programs.
WSRB: What do you want people who buy property insurance, either for their home or for a commercial property they own, to know about the WUI?
Fitzgerald-McGowan: The biggest piece is for people who buy a property within the WUI to understand the risk associated with that and to know that there are things they can do.
When they find out what they need to do, some people find it overwhelming. It seems like it will take a long time or be very expensive. But there are a lot of simple and inexpensive things you can do. For example, start with that zero-to-five foot zone. Make sure there’s nothing combustible there; that will help a lot. Then work your way out. You may not have thought about managing wildfire risk when you bought the property, but it is your responsibility. It’s important to be part of the solution and not be complacent.
We have a page on our website that’s all about preparing your home. Look at that page and start on the tasks.
Also, when you set up your insurance, do everything that’s recommended, including creating a home inventory. We’ve seen a lot of people share their stories of loss, and those experiences are much harder if you didn’t document what you had before the fire.
If your community participates in our Firewise program, consider joining in related events and doing what you can to support the program in your area. If your community doesn’t yet participate, find out more about how you can start a program.
WSRB: You can learn more about which properties you insure are in the WUI, along with other wildfire-related risk factors in our new Wildfire Risks Tool. Login today to try it. It’s currently free for all registered WSRB users.