2020 Western U.S. Wildfire Season Gave Us Gigafire, Several Massive Blazes

08 December 2020

Published by https://www.insurancejournal.com/

USA – Want more proof that 2020 will go down as a year we should all try hard to forget about?

With some 9 million acres burned in wildfires across Western U.S. this year, and the introduction of a new and terrifying term “gigafire,” the year’s wildfire season more than held its own with recent record-setting wildfire seasons.

Data analytics firm Irvine, Calif.-based CoreLogic covered the year in wildfires in a webinar on Tuesday, A Horizon on Fire. “A Horizon on Fire: Where Do We Go From Here?”

The webinar covered:

  • What conditions created the fires this year?
  • What truths risk scoring and wildfire modeling can reveal to us about the propensity of wildfire in the U.S.?
  • And what construction trends can tell us about the impact on recovery?

It featured Maiclarie Bolton Smith, senior leader of research and content strategy, Tom Jeffrey, a senior hazard scientist, Jessica Marose, a product manager, Saumi Shokraee, a research and content professional, and Shelly Yerkes, a senior product manager.

The wildfire reason was off to a slow start to 2020, particularly in California, trending below the 10-year average up until mid-August. In that short time, wildfires catapulted the season up to the 4th highest acreage total burned since 1960.

“We’re approaching 9.5 million acres in the U.S.,” Jeffrey said.

California has seen 4.1 million acres burned and has seen five of the six largest fires in state history, according to Jeffrey.

The state also suffered a single fire over 1 million acres, a term we now have a name for: gigafire, meaning a fire that burns at least 1 million acres. To find a fire in the lower 48 states that matched the size of the August Complex Fire, Jeffrey had look back in the records more than 100 years.

“We really find it troubling that that kind of a fire can occur in this day and age given the resources we have,” Jeffrey said.

The recent years of increasingly severe wildfires have had an impact on the state’s homeowners and its insurance market. An increasing number of Californians have been dropped by their regular insurers after years of devastating wildfires that cost billions of dollars and upended the market.

States throughout the Western U.S. suffered through notably severe 2020 wildfire seasons, according to CoreLogic:

  • Colorado had the three largest fires in state history.
  • In Oregon more than 1 million acres burned, roughly double the 10-year average of 556,774 acres per year
  • In Washington, more than 700,000 acres burned.

Jeffrey said that 2020’s wildfire year was one to remember, or forget if you prefer, for a number of reasons, including that COVID-19 made fewer firefighters available, winds were of extreme duration and intensity moreso than usual, there’s a continued long duration and extreme drought distributed across Western U.S., and many simultaneous fires stretched resources (more than 560 fires broke out in California between Aug. 15 and 17).

Fires were bad, but urban planning, or lack thereof, made things worse.

Marose covered the impact of the Wildland Urban Interface. Expansion the interface, or WUI, is leading to higher losses and more catastrophic wildfires, she said.

Most new problems in WUI areas are due to new housing and subdivisions, she said, adding “there’ll be more wildfires due to human ignition,” and that wildfires now pose a greater risk to lives and homes.

A replay is the webinar is available at CoreLogic’s website.

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