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The Wildland-Urban Interface: Wildfire Risk at Your Doorstep

January 7, 2020

Three trends are combining to put some Washington state communities at an increasing risk of wildfire damage. 

First, wildfires are becoming more common. Between 2000 and 2011, 117,000 wildland acres burned on average each year in the state. Between 2012 and 2017, that number nearly quadrupled to 460,500.1 Totals for 2019 aren’t yet available, but in 2018, 1,743 wildfires burned 438,834 acres in Washington state.2 

Second, more people are living in areas near wildlands, also called the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Nearly a million homes in Washington are located in the WUI.3  

Homes in the wildland urban interface (WUI)Homes in the wildland urban interface (WUI) in Washington state are at an elevated risk of
property damage from a wildfire

There’s no way to predict how many acres will burn in this year’s wildfire season or which communities specifically will be affected, but the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has identified 25 places most likely to be exposed to wildland fire. Leavenworth tops the list, which also includes Wenatchee, Cashmere, Chelan, Twisp, Winthrop and other areas near forests. Here’s the complete list, which the DNR ranked based on a combination of high likelihood of a wildland fire occurring and a high population:4

1. Leavenworth 14. Okanogan
2. Ellensburg 15. Colville
3. Selah 16. Cle Elum
4. Spokane 17. Winthrop
5. Wenatchee 18. Sunnyslope
6. Chelan 19. Brewster
7. Goldendale  20. Kittitas
8. Tonasket 21. Entiat
9. Cashmere 22. Ahtanum
10. Omak 23. Summitview
11. Twisp 24. Malott
12. Deer Park 25. Manson
13. Clarkston Heights-Vineland

 

Related:
Help Your Customers Prepare for Wildfire Season with Our New Tool

 

Many Washington properties are at high risk of wildfire damage 

Wildfire risk isn’t limited to just the areas on the DNR’s list. Across the state, more than 160,000 properties are at high or extreme risk of being affected by wildfire. That number puts Washington sixth on the list of all states.5 

Top 10 States at High to Extreme Wildfire Risk, 20196

Rank State Properties at Risk (estimated)
1 California 2,019,800
2 Texas 717,800
3 Colorado 371,100
4 Arizona 237,900
5 Idaho 175,000
6 Washington 160,500
7 Oklahoma 153,400
8 Oregon 151,400
9 Montana 137,800
10 Utah 136,000

 

A third trend is the wildland now has more fuel. For decades, the standard response to wildfire was to suppress it as quickly as possible, a practice that had the unintended consequence of fuel accumulation. When forests now dense with fuel catch on fire, they burn hotter and more severely than thinner forests did in the past.  

What’s causing wildland fires in the WUI and elsewhere? Primarily people. The DNR estimates 70% of wildland fires started in Washington between 1992 and 2015 were caused by humans. Unattended campfires, improperly disposed of cigarettes, debris burns and arson are the most common reasons wildfires start. Lightning is responsible for starting the remaining fires.7  

 

Related:
Underwriting Property: A Guide to Fire, Wildfire and Earthquakes

 

The consequences of the growing WUI 

As the WUI grows — and wildfire risk grows along with it — insurance professionals are likely to need more and better information about it. WSRB is here to help you understand the properties you insure or are considering insuring and how fire risk affects them. So, we'll be publishing more content on the topic of wildfire over the next several weeks.  

We are also building a tool giving you valuable information on every property in Washington state and its wildfire risk. When the tool is ready, we’ll announce its availability here on our blog. Stay tuned. 

In the meantime, you can help customers in the WUI protect their properties by providing them with resources to reduce property damage risk. Here are a few: 

  • The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) runs the Firewise USA program to help communities work together to protect their homes against wildfire damage. The NFPA offers free training and information on its Firewise website
  • The office of Washington state governor Jay Inslee maintains a website with state and federal resources for people affected by wildfire.  
  • Recent Washington state legislation, HB 2322, allows insurers to provide non-commercial customers with goods and services that reduce risk. Download our white paper to learn more about how the legislation works and how it can benefit your customers and your company.  

Robert Ferrell, P.E. is WSRB’s Vice President of Public Protection. He leads the team that manages the insurance rating of cities, fire districts and building departments throughout Washington state. He has more than 25 years of experience in fire insurance rating.   

[1] Washington State Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, https://www.dnr.wa.gov/publications/rp_wildfire_strategic_plan.pdf?lmvb8d

[2] Insurance Information Institute, https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-wildfires

[3] Washington State Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, https://www.dnr.wa.gov/publications/rp_wildfire_strategic_plan.pdf?lmvb8d

[4] Washington State Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, https://www.dnr.wa.gov/publications/rp_wildfire_strategic_plan.pdf?lmvb8d

[5] Insurance Information Institute, https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-wildfires

[6] Insurance Information Institute, https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-wildfires

[7] Washington State Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, https://www.dnr.wa.gov/publications/rp_wildfire_strategic_plan.pdf?lmvb8d

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