February 24th, 2009

CAT-i Update: Bushfires in Australia Report 2

Posted at 12:30 AM ET

Hazard data illustrated in the CAT-i map was taken from i-aXs®, Guy Carpenter’s web-based risk management platform. i-aXs users can view impacted areas on any map as well as see how their portfolios were affected. Please contact your broker or Instrat® representative for assistance or go to www.i-axs.info for further information. For these particular bushfires, Guy Carpenter has been providing its clients with impacted postcodes lists.

Summary

Residents in parts of Victoria are still on alert as more than 20 bushfires continue to burn in the Australian state. Firefighters are battling to contain the remaining blazes after more than 400 bushfires fanned by strong winds of up to 60 mph (100 kmph) hit the states of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia over the weekend. Officials said at least 181 people have been killed and more than 1,000 homes have been destroyed, the vast majority in the worst affected areas north of Melbourne in Victoria State. Officials said the final death toll is expected to exceed 200. In addition to those killed, more than 500 people have been injured.

According to sources quoted by Dow Jones International News, insurance companies could incur losses of more than AUD500 million (USD335 million) from the bushfires and that some affected insurers could trigger their reinsurance programmes. Standard & Poor’s (S&P) Ratings Services, meanwhile, said estimates from the market suggest the bushfires are likely to cause insured losses of more than AUD500 million and total damage (including infrastructure) could exceed AUD2 billion (USD1.4 billion). S&P added these figures are likely to rise.

Temperatures dropped and conditions improved on February 9, 2009 and February 10, 2009, aiding the thousands of firefighters that are battling to bring the fires under control. Although the fires in New South Wales and South Australia are reported to be largely contained or burning away from residential areas, 23 are still burning in Victoria and 12 towns remain on alert as strong winds flared. Healesville, about 30 miles (50 kilometres) northeast of Melbourne, was the latest community threatened by one of the remaining bushfires. Further east in Gippsland, firefighters were trying to control a massive blaze stretching more than 60 miles (100 kilometres). Weather forecasters predict temperatures in the region to be cool for the next two days but warned hot weather may return later in the week.

Reports said a total of 1,400 square miles (3,650 square kilometers) have been affected in 25 local government authorities. and entire towns have been completely destroyed by what police are describing as the worst bushfires in the country’s history. Australia’s previous worst bushfire event was in 1983 when 75 people were killed and 2,300 homes were destroyed in the “Ash Wednesday” fires. The disaster area, reportedly more than twice the size of London and encompassing more than 20 towns north of Melbourne, has been declared a crime zone by officials. Officials are investigating the cause of the bushfires, suspecting that some were started deliberately while others were ignited by lightning strikes, sparks from power lines or discarded cigarettes.

Suspicions that some of the blazes were caused by arson has led police to declare crime scenes in some razed towns and resulted in a 100-strong police investigation squad being set up. Victoria State Police Commissioner Christine Nixon has launched Operation Phoenix, vowing to catch anyone who started a blaze, and Australian Attorney General Robert McClelland said suspected arsonists could face murder charges. Fire officials monitor lightning strikes and any fire that does not correspond with a strike is assumed to be started by people, either accidentally or deliberately.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced an immediate aid package of AUD10 million (USD7 million) and pledged that damaged communities would be rebuilt, with no limit on federal spending. Officials said 5,000 people have been made homeless and are seeking shelter in community halls, schools and churches. Two large fires caused most of the damage in Victoria, one located northeast of Melbourne that virtually razed the towns of Kinglake and Marysville, and a second that raced across Gippsland to the southeast of Melbourne. The fires have disrupted transportation in the affected areas, with authorities closing several main roads and highways. Up to 14,000 homes and businesses are reportedly without power and officials said it could be weeks before it is fully restored. A number of vineyards in the Yarra Valley were also destroyed, Reuters said.

The largest blaze in Victoria was located in the Kinglake area, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of Melbourne. The Kinglake bushfire burned around 810 square miles (2,000 square kilometers) as it tore through several towns on 7 February, destroying everything in its path. Reports said the fire was as tall as a four-storey building and was sparking spot fires 25 miles (40 kilometers) ahead of itself. Kinglake, Marysville and their surrounding communities were the worst affected areas, with Marysville (population of around 800 people) reported to have been virtually wiped out (up to 90 percent of buildings destroyed) and Kinglake also reported to be devastated. The Kinglake area is thought to be the worst affected location, with more than 550 homes destroyed and at least 45 people confirmed dead. Other towns reportedly affected by the blaze include Whittlesea, Wandong, Strathewen, Narbethlong, Buxton, Taggerty, and St Andrews.

Blazes have been burning for weeks in Victoria and tens of thousands of firefighters were deployed over the weekend when temperatures of up to 118 degree F (48 degree C) and strong winds created a firestorm that swept across the state. A long-running drought in the south of the Australia has left forests extra dry and created fire conditions that officials said were the worst ever in Australia.

The bushfires are the most deadly natural disaster in Australia in 110 years, according to reports. In 1899, Cyclone Mahina struck Australia’s northern Cape York, killing more than 400.

Sources: BBC News, CNN News, Associated Press, Associated Press, Agence France Presse, Reuters News, Australian Associated Press, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dow Jones Asian Equities Report, Dow Jones International News

Read the previous report >>

Guy Carpenter’s Instrat® department provides CAT-i reports for major natural catastrophes worldwide. These reports cover catastrophes including worldwide tropical cyclones, earthquakes, major UK and European floods and any other natural event that is likely to incur a significant loss to the (re)insurance industry. Please email CAT.i@guycarp.com if you wish to be added to the free email distribution list.

Instrat also provides RISK-i reports for major technological or man-made events worldwide. These reports cover risks to property, transport and life including explosions, fires, crashes, engineering disasters and terrorist attacks that are likely to incur a significant loss to the (re)insurance industry. Please email RISK.i@guycarp.com if you wish to be added to the free email distribution list.

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