Wildfire is another peril likely to be impacted by climate change, according to Guy Carpenter’s Protecting our Planet and the Public Purse report. Data from recent years shows that fire seasons have lengthened and modeling studies predict significant increases in fire activity in high-risk areas.
A warming climate that brings increased drought and higher temperatures will inevitably result in more frequent and severe fires. More heat and drought increases forests’ vulnerability to wildfire as fuels become more likely to burn. Global climate models, which look at wildfire risk into the mid to late 21st century, find that climate change is increasing the probability of extreme fire conditions around the globe (see Figure 8).
Events in Australia at the end of 2019 reinforced the threat posed by the peril when the New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner reported an unprecedented number of wildfires raging across Australia’s most populous state (1). The cause of the fires has been attributed to a sustained period of above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall (2). Bushfires & Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre stated that traditional fire seasons in the region were starting earlier and “the cumulative fire danger” was growing (3).
More intense heatwaves and sustained higher temperatures also increased the number of wildfires in Europe in 2018/2019. During the summer of 2019, Spain, Portugal and Southern France battled the largest blazes seen in over 20 years, with over 2,100 wildfires impacting the European Union this year alone (4).
Similar observations and findings have been seen in California, where unprecedented wildfire damage has taken place over the past three years. The Camp Fire in 2018 claimed 88 lives and destroyed more than 18,500 structures, becoming the largest global loss event of the year (5). This was followed shortly by the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. Economic and insured losses from The Camp Fire alone have been estimated at over USD 16 billion (economic) and USD 12 billion (insured), respectively (6).
Figure 9 shows how temperatures in California have not only increased significantly over the last decade but also how spring heat has become more pronounced earlier in the year and persists through the summer.
Changing weather patterns are clearly influencing wildfire activity in California and elsewhere, yet climate change is only part of problem. Losses are also being driven by more people living in wildfire-prone areas across all regions. In fact, the wild and urban interface (WUI) in California has expanded by 60 percent since 1970 and now contains 4.5 million homes. The infrastructure required to support people living and working in these spaces is also a potential ignition source.
Such demographic trends are explored in further detail in the next section. Changes in exposure concentrations are only going to exacerbate the impact of climate change. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that over 85 percent of the population in developed nations will live in urban areas by 2050 (compared to 65 percent in developing nations) (7). Many of these cities are exposed directly to sea level rises.
Governments need to focus on mitigation strategies to help alleviate the impacts of future events. Continually increasing dollars at risk from climate change (as well as population growth in catastrophe-prone areas) can be mitigated by relatively simple, and in many cases, cheap measures such as building code adherence. Embracing and supporting the research and implementation of such initiatives is essential to the health of the public sector and the broader economy. Even more importantly, mitigation reduces the personal distress of those unfortunate enough to be involved.
1. Paolo Zialcita, “Wildfired Rage in Australian State” ‘We’ve Simply Never Had This Number of Fires,” NPR, November 8, 2019, accessed December 4, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/11/08/777649636/wildfires-rage-in-australianstate-we-ve-simply-never-had-this-number-of-fires.
3. “Is Climate Change to Blame for Australia’s Bushfires?” BBC News, November 11, 2019, accessed December 4, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-50341210.
4. Data Source: European Commission – European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS)
5. “Natural catastrophes and man-made disasters in 2018: “secondary” perils on the frontline”. Swiss Re Institute – Sigma. No 2/2019.
6. Munich Re: The natural disasters of 2018 in figures: https://www.munichre.com/topics-online/en/climate-changeand-natural-disasters/natural-disasters/the-natural-disasters-of-2018-in-figures.html
7. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision (ST/ESA/SER.A/420). New York: United Nations.