Source: Mihail Tregubov/Unsplash

A Burning Question: National Fire Insurance?

For the past several months, the nation’s print and broadcast media have taken breaks from their coverage of the 2008 presidential elections to report from time to time on the massive destruction caused by the West Coast wildfires. There have been tale after tale of lost homes and many articles focusing on the massive cost of replacing or rebuilding the lost homes. Many of the homeowners interviewed had no insurance and were unsure of how and if they would be able to rebuild.

Creation of a national program of wildfire insurance is one option that has been mentioned to ensure that the huge financial investment so many Americans make in their homes can be reasonably secure and that they can at least be assured of being able to rebuild. In that context, it is worth pointing out that wildfires and floods share certain features in common, including: (a) hazard predictability on the local level; (b) the loss of a large number of homes in a single event; and (c) the involvement of a significant number of uninsured homeowners.

At least in part because of its own annual wildfire losses, California has taken the lead in exploring several innovative response possibilities, including the creation of a statewide mutual-aid system and a “firescope” program – similar in many respects to the federal government’s incident command system (ICS).

Among the several working tools available not only to firefighting agencies but also to land-use planners in California is a set of “fire risk” maps maintained by the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Fire and Resource Assessment Program. Such maps, which plot the relative fire risks in the state’s forests and rangelands, can be a major resource in the development of financial plans and insurance programs related to risk assessments.

Zone Mapping and the FEMA Template

Some experts have suggested, in fact, that fire-hazard mapping probably should be expanded nationwide so that all inhabited areas of the country would be mapped into wildfire zones. Such mapping would take into account not only historical data but also such relevant current factors as the types and varieties of plant and tree growth in the area being mapped. The configuration of the land and the water resources available (for firefighting, at least) would be among the other factors that should be taken into consideration.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has provided a helpful template that could be used by separating the entire United States into “flood zones” that are divided primarily by the relative degree of flood risk within each zone. Like flood zones, wildfire zones would show at a glance the areas of the country where fires are more likely to occur over a given period of time and would be an extremely useful risk-analysis tool.

There is another similarity between floods and wildfires that is worth taking into consideration – namely, that not only homes but entire neighborhoods can be lost in a wildfire, just as they are in a flood. That cruel fact of modern life is a compelling reason why a national wildfire insurance program is worth considering. The impact that such events have on the community is almost incalculable when large numbers of homes are lost at the same time, and their owners are left to struggle with the frequently impossible costs of rebuilding.

A final point of similarity between floods and wildfires is that there are certain mitigation steps that can be taken to lessen not only the risk involved in either calamity but also the potential financial loss that would be incurred. These steps would only lessen the risks and/or financial losses, it should be emphasized, not completely eliminate them.

In that context, it would seem both logical and appropriate for the federal government not only to partially subsidize the insurance required but also to mandate its purchase by those who choose to live in high-risk areas. Too often in the past – particularly in high-risk flood areas – it has been left to the federal government to provide the safety net needed by homeowners who did not or could not purchase hazard insurance. A better answer to the politically difficult question of how to help support those who live in high-risk wildfire areas may not be continued federal disaster assistance but a subsidized insurance plan mandated for those who choose to live in areas of high risk.

Joseph Cahill
Joseph Cahill

Joseph Cahill is the director of medicolegal investigations for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He previously served as exercise and training coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and as emergency planner in the Westchester County (N.Y.) Office of Emergency Management. He also served for five years as citywide advanced life support (ALS) coordinator for the FDNY – Bureau of EMS. Before that, he was the department’s Division 6 ALS coordinator, covering the South Bronx and Harlem. He also served on the faculty of the Westchester County Community College’s paramedic program and has been a frequent guest lecturer for the U.S. Secret Service, the FDNY EMS Academy, and Montefiore Hospital.



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