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Wildfire-hit countries in need of new strategies to tame burning threat

Australia, US, Canada, and other fire-hit nations are seeking to revamp their fire management policies. What new approach should they undertake?

Wildfires around the world are surging in number, size, strength and destruction, driven partly by global warming, while ever more people and their homes lie in the path of danger, researchers warned on Thursday.

But cutting fire losses and risks is proving a gargantuan task, not least because communities - whether in Australia or California - like living near forests and have so far been little deterred by the growing threat, fire experts said.

That is presenting a host of challenges, from insurers suffering increasingly crippling losses, to firefighting managers who have to decide where to deploy limited resources.

Nowhere has the problem been more evident than in Australia, where wildfires - many out of control in the hottest and driest year on record - have burned through every state in two months.

The blazes have now consumed 17 million hectares (42 million acres), about 2,800 homes and 28 lives, said Alexander Robson, Australia’s representative to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, where the fire experts met to share ideas.

With 85 fires still burning, 30 of them not yet contained, the damage is expected to rise, Robson said, calling the fires “unprecedented”.

The Australian crisis, however, is just the most recent of fire upswings from California to Portugal and Canada, all of which are seeking to revamp their fire management policies to try to meet the challenge.

“If this is the ‘new normal’, then tweaking well-established approaches to risk management of wildfires will not make any difference,” warned John Handmer, a science advisor on risk for the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

But tweaks are “almost entirely what’s being discussed in Australia at the moment”, said Handmer, who lives in the capital Canberra, which has been choked with wildfire smoke this month.

If this is the ‘new normal’, then tweaking well-established approaches to risk management of wildfires will not make any difference.

John Handmer, science advisor on risk, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Beautiful but deadly

Australia and other fire-hit nations need “a new approach”, he said, such as rethinking evacuation practices and tightening building codes and urban planning rules.

Creating fire risk maps could make homeowners more aware of threats or limit expansion into wooded areas by enabling insurance costs to better reflect real risks.

But the essential problem, researchers said, is rising populations in places like Australia and the United States, coupled with a desire to live in pleasant environments, putting many more people in the path of fires.

Between 1990 and 2010, the number of housing units next to or within forested areas grew by 60 per cent in the United States, according to research by Volker Radeloff, a forest and wildlife ecology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

That means when fires start, many more homes can burn. But while fire losses can deter new building in an area for a year or two, the effect doesn’t last long, researchers said.

“People know they live in a risky place. It’s not stupidity,” Radeloff said. The truth is, “they are beautiful places to live. I would love to live in these homes.”

A culture promoting quick rebuilding after wildfires, both because communities rely on property taxes and because homeowners want it, also can be problematic.

“The political response to a large event is always, ‘We will rebuild.’ It’s almost a knee-jerk response,” said Richard Thornton, chief executive officer of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre in Australia.

But in the longer term, it may be more sensible not to rebuild in the same way or in exactly the same places, said Thornton, whose own home backs onto a forested area.

Insurance losses 

The rising cost of fire insurance in areas hit by catastrophic blazes may soon influence decisions on reconstruction, or at least drive more use of fire-resistant materials, said Robert Muir-Wood, chief research officer for Risk Management Solutions.

After loss-hit insurers ended policies in some areas scorched by wildfires in 2018, California last year mandated that insurers maintain existing policies in fire-hit and adjoining areas for at least a year after a fire.

The insurance industry has seen its losses from California wildfires average $3.7 billion a year from 2011 to 2018, a dramatic jump from the $600-million annual average in the previous 19 years, said Muir-Wood, whose company models catastrophe risk.

That suggests policy prices will eventually rise, or insurers will need some kind of new model to survive.

“If the level of risk rises above a certain threshold, insurance doesn’t really function,” he said. “Insurers are not going to write business that is unprofitable.”

One problem facing countries like Australia will be funding new measures to limit fires while simultaneously paying for the damage already done - particularly when prevention may offer limited political dividends, Thornton said.

In other countries, such as Portugal, where fire risks have surged as farmers abandon fields to move to cities, winning the battle may require unusual shifts like luring millennials back to herding sheep, which graze on flammable undergrowth.

That would be a tough task, admitted Tiago Oliveira, director of Portugal’s Agency for the Integrated Management of Rural Fire.

One positive development, as fire managers learn lessons from worsening blazes, is that fire deaths are not rising as fast as financial losses, researchers said.

Better warning messages, developed after Black Saturday bushfires claimed 173 lives in Australia in 2009, were one reason the death toll has been far lower in this year’s much longer and more widespread fires, Thornton said.

“That is a significant achievement,” he added.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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