More sprawl means higher wildfire losses

Researcher forecasts average 2011 fire season.

Urban sprawl will increase insured losses from wildfires in the coming years, according to a Canadian wildfire specialist.

More people are buying holiday homes and  acreages farther and farther outside urban centres, and the growing number of properties in areas prone to wildfires make more losses inevitable, says Kerry Anderson, a researcher at the Canadian Forest Service

At present, losses stemming from forest fire are lower than those caused by hail or ice storms, Anderson told attendees at an Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) forum in Toronto. “But if we calculate the trend in wildland-urban interface, we might see these insurance payouts increasing over time.”

Anderson pointed to Canmore, Alberta as a prime example. “I’ve seen a radical change in this quiet community in 20 years,” he said during the April 15 meeting.

The shift in population moving from urban to wildland areas is significant, he added. “We’ve seen the largest increase in [such] population in Canada.”

“Average” season for 2011

Each year, approximately 7,000 wildfires burn two million hectares in Canada. Just over one-third of fires are caused by lightning (35%), while people cause the remaining 65%, Anderson said.

Last year, Canada saw an “active” fire season–especially in British Columbia–in which double the average land area burned, Anderson said. That season followed an extremely dry spring. “Last year at this time, we were looking at the driest spring since the 1930s,” he pointed out.

In 2011, “we’ll see it move into an average fire season,” he said. “We won’t see the extremes we had last year.” But the forecasts also call for above average fire activity in British Columbia and Eastern Canada.

This year will see a later start to the season, thanks to cooler, wetter spring conditions, he said.

Researchers use various factors to determine how serious the so-called “fire season” will be: a Fire Weather Index, which moisture; Fire Behaviour Prediction, which ties weather data to the types of trees in a specific area–coniferous trees fuel fires, while deciduous trees act as a barrier; and monitoring via satellites, which collects infrared information on hot spots.

Although the satellites pick up on fires, there can be a lag time between the start of the fire and detection, so it’s not very useful as an emergency response tool, Anderson said. “When it comes to putting out fires as quickly as possible, this is not good enough.”

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Transcontinental Media G.P.