A Conversation With Howard Kunst
Wildfires are an annual occurrence in many areas of the U.S. However, as our climate changes, fires are beginning to ignite in areas that are traditionally at low risk. Just look at the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Despite the increasing number of regions experiencing wildfires, only about 9% of U.S. properties meet the threshold for high or extreme wildfire risk. So how exactly is this risk measured and what role can mitigation play in reducing this natural danger?
In this episode host Maiclaire Bolton Smith sits down with CoreLogic Chief Actuary Howard Kunst to talk about this subject. The two will discuss the wildfire season with a focus on California — one of the most high-profile, wildfire-burdened states in the country — and how the historic rainfall from earlier this year will influence upcoming wildfire risk.
In This Episode:
1:25 – California had one of the wettest winters on record last year. How has that changed wildfire risk in the state? Hint: It didn’t necessarily improve things.
4:08 – Why is awareness of wildfires important for mitigation and how do we create awareness in low-risk areas?
6:07 – Is climate change really making wildfires worse?
7:30 – Erika Stanley talks about extreme weather events in the Natural Disaster Digest.
So, if we think about what just happened in Maui with the type of fires they just had there, I mean, they’ve had it in multiple areas within Maui and even in the Big Island. We’re seeing that it was caused by some of these lower-level brush and high grasses.
Welcome back to part two of our conversation about wildfire risk across the U.S., and why low risk does not mean no risk. If you missed part one, I do recommend going back and catching up on last week’s episode. To recap, we welcomed CoreLogic’s Chief Actuary Howard Kunst to talk about how to determine wildfire risk, how it’s evolving, and how to prepare.
Maiclaire Bolton Smith:
If we think on the path of these disasters here, in recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the historic drought conditions that we’ve had, in particular in California and across the Pacific Northwest. How is that — we’ve had extreme winds as well — how has that impacted some of these unprecedented losses we’ve had with some of the big events in the last few years? And then, before you answer that, we’ve talked as well about this winter was one of the wettest winters on record here in California, and it just rained forever. How has that changed things?
So I think we’ll take that last piece first. When you have wet weather, you get the vegetation that grows is the stuff that is smaller, lower to the ground that grows fast. And primarily that’s the vegetation that spurs wildfires. It’s not the big trees, it’s the ground clutter. That is how wildfires spread. Interesting. So when that stuff grows up, and then when you do have the summer heat and dryness in California and the western states dries up and becomes new vegetation, new fuel that can burn. So yeah, we saw that in 2017 as well with the Tubbs Fire and others is that it had been a very wet winter and then we had a very high fire season.
But yeah, I mean the drought is really something that has really changed things with it being that dry in areas, and we’re actually accounting for that now within the wildfire risk score — is adding some increase to the risk scores in areas that are having long-term extreme drought, not a short-term drought, but areas that have had three to five years of drought. We’re increasing the scores there because we know that the vegetation is most likely drier than would’ve been otherwise.
Interesting. Yeah. So are we saying that after all this rain we had this winter, we are now having a really bad wildfire season on the horizon? Is that what we are anticipating, or is it too hard to say?
Well, if that new growth vegetation doesn’t get cleared out, that does lead to a potential for fuel that can cause wildfires. And I think that’s really the big thing, that is the big issue in California right now is the mitigation and clearing that space, all the defensible space around your house, to make sure you’re doing everything you can to keep the flames from traveling. You’re still going to have ember issue by flying but keeping any potential fuel that can burn as far away from your house as possible.
So that’s why mitigation has become such an important topic in the western states. So if we think about what just happened in Maui with the type of fires they just had there, again, they’ve had it in multiple areas within Maui and even in the Big Island. We’re seeing that it was caused by some of these lower-level brush and high grasses. So unfortunately, that’s likely what contributed to the Bai fire being so extreme.
And I almost wonder with that too, if it’s not awareness. I think because it is an area that would be considered relatively low risk and people in general maybe didn’t realize the risk was there and therefore the awareness of clearing the brush. Most areas of California, if there’s brush, immediately, boom, wildfire risk. Let’s get that out. Let’s get it covered so that we can lower our risk. But in regions that aren’t used to this happening and aren’t used to having a level of risk, the awareness of what they should do to mitigate probably isn’t there.
Exactly. Yeah. And I think, again, you’re alluding to California has a whole lot more experience with wildfires historically and has developed their plans of mitigation and how to deal with the type of events that occur like this when they have high winds. I know the power lines in the past have been a source of transmission of wildfires, and I think the Tubbs Fire was one that was ultimately caused by power lines. I wonder if perhaps, using that as an example and for other states because now California will shut down certain grids when the winds are high.
Yeah. It’s true here in California we’ve learned so much through the devastation that’s happened, unfortunately. But it really has started to — rolling blackouts when you get to these extreme winds, extreme heat, and it’s inconvenient, but it is protecting all of us by having the awareness of what some things can be done to help lower the risk in some of these high-risk times, high-risk areas that have high-risk times when there are things that could potentially ignite fires.
Okay. So we talk a lot on this podcast about climate change. So I did want to throw this in too, and if we look from a climate change perspective, what can we say about wildfires? Are they getting worse? How are they getting worse? And what can we expect when we look out 50 years or more?
It’s really tough to say, but if we continue to see climate change and we continue to see temperatures getting warmer in some of these areas, we do know that the temperature differentials that also contribute to higher winds. So with wildfire, we do have the potential, if climate change continues, of having drier fuel and more winds, that will make the wildfires larger and more extreme compared to historical.
And likely to see more extreme damage in these areas that have traditionally been low or moderate risk.
Yes. But as the potential for these events being more extreme, they will begin to impact areas of lower risk than currently. And perhaps the models will change. And as that happens, we will extend the risk further away from the actual vegetation to account for that change in risk.
Speaking of extreme weather, before we finish this episode, let’s take a break and talk about what’s happening in the world of natural disasters this season.
CoreLogic’s Hazard HQ Command Central reports on natural catastrophes and extreme weather events across the world. A link to their coverage is in the show notes. The end of summer saw the Atlantic teaming with hurricane activity. As we hit the middle of the season, Hurricane Franklin soaked Hispaniola while Hurricane Idalia made landfall on the Florida coast. A few weeks later, Hurricane Lee reached Category 5 intensity and remained a powerful hurricane as it passed well east of Florida, and Hurricane Margot appeared far out in the open Atlantic.
Wildfire season was also in full swing. This summer wildfires in Canada continued to burn setting records and affecting millions of acres. A devastating wildfire also broke out on the island of Maui, which became one of the nation’s deadliest in U.S. history.
Wildfires are dynamic, and this unexpected blaze in Hawaii is why CoreLogic looks beyond historical data and uses simulation models to bring clarity to the future of wildfire risk. If not, certain previously untouched areas might be overlooked as low-risk zones.
Outside of the U.S., a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Morocco about 75 kilometers, or 45 miles, southwest of Marrakesh. This was the deadliest earthquake to shake the country in more than six decades. There was damage to significant cultural sites, including a 12th-century mosque and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the most severe damage happened to homes built from adobe, stone, mud, and wood in smaller towns near the Atlas Mountains. However, insured losses are expected to be minimal since the rates of insurance are low in the provinces south of Marrakesh. And that’s the Natural Disaster Digest.
Howard, this has been great. Thank you so much for joining me today on Core Conversations: A CoreLogic Podcast.
Thank you very much. Glad to be here to help educate our listeners.
All right. And thank you for listening. I hope you’ve enjoyed our latest episode. Please remember to leave us a review and let us know your thoughts and subscribe wherever you get your podcast to be notified when new episodes are released. And thanks to the team for helping bring this podcast to life: Producer, Jessi Devenyns; editor and sound engineer, Romie Aromin; our facts guru, Erika Stanley; and social media duo, Sarah Buck and Makaila Brooks. Tune in next time for another Core Conversation.
You still there? Well, thanks for sticking around. Are you curious to know a little bit more about our guest today? Well, Howard Kunst is the Chief Actuary at CoreLogic. He works on the science and analytics team, and he provides a variety of analytical services to the insurance industry and other clients. He also provides market and industry insights in support of product development, sales, marketing, and thought leadership. You can find him speaking at various conferences throughout the U.S. Find out where he’ll be next by reaching out to our team at [email protected].