California wildfires can teach Canada lessons about how fire spreads

Published: December 14, 2017

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones



Massive wildfire insurance losses caused by blazes in California have taught lessons that can be applied to Canada. Chiefly, the wildfires showed that some types of buildings are at risk of burning down, even if they are separated from the woods.

British Columbia has had record wildfires this year, while the wildfire season was one of the largest on record across Canada. However, the severity of the California fires dwarves anything that has been seen in Canada, including 2016’s Fort McMurray blaze. The US state will see insurance losses over $10 billion, but a Canadian disaster prevention research expert believes lessons can be learned.

“The losses in California, both in October and now, confirm a lot of what we already know —prevent embers from igniting, and you can save a structure and prevent building-to-building spread of fire,” said Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, speaking to Canadian Underwriter.

Fort McMurray also showed what California blazes have now confirmed, McGillivray says. During the May, 2016 event, Canada’s largest ever insurance loss ($4 billion) occurred in Fort McMurray when a wild fire tore through the town. The flames claimed thousands of buildings and displaced 90,000 residents for a month.

McGillivray says that event showed some neighborhoods were consumed by the fire, while one single structure would remain standing. Speaking in October at the Annual Engineering Insurance Conference in Toronto, he said some properties increase the risk of wildfire embers lighting.

McGillivray added “California probably leads the way in incorporating wildfire risk into how and where new homes are built, requiring builders to follow a Wildland Urban Interface Code when building new homes and requiring communities to draft Fire Hazard Severity Zone Maps.”

California maps “don’t appear to have taken wind and the travel of wind-borne embers into consideration,” McGillivray pointed out. Canada needs to take these lessons and improve, mostly by removing materials that are ignited by embers, even if they are located far away from the wildfire.