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Wildfires continue to spread across California despite containment efforts

13th November 2018 - Author: Matt Sheehan

The Camp and Woolsey Wildfires, which broke out in California’s Butte and Ventura Counties, respectively, last Thursday, have continued to expand despite containment efforts, with a combined total of 7,150 structures now destroyed by the blazes.


Containment efforts are making progress in many areas of the wildfires. Source: AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

With 6,713 structures destroyed and 42 deaths confirmed, the Camp Wildfire is now officially both the most destructive and the deadliest wildfire in California’s history.

The latest data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) shows that the Camp Fire has burnt through 117,000 acres, although it is now 30% contained and the number of destroyed structures has not risen since yesterday.

Recent estimates by Morgan Stanley put the Camp Wildfire’s cost to the insurance and reinsurance industries in the range of $2 billion to $4 billion, while Aon’s Impact Forecasting team agreed that it would drive multi-billion dollar insured losses.

The majority of the Camp Fire’s damage has been inflicted on the town of Paradise in northern California’s Butte County, which was devastated on Thursday evening after the blaze ignited that morning and spread with unprecedented speed.

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Although officials have not yet disclosed a cause for the Camp Wildfire, energy supplier Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has been under scrutiny due to reports that its power lines in the area had experienced problems shortly before the fire ignited.

The blaze continues to threaten a further 15,500 structures, but it is not currently burning towards any towns and Cal Fire said that weather conditions had improved and that firefighters were making progress with containment efforts.

Further south, the Woolsey fire has now destroyed 435 structures and damaged a further 24 across the Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, including many in the affluent Malibu area.

The fire has now burnt through 93,662 acres and is 30% contained, but officials said that it continues to threaten as many as 57,000 structures.

Catastrophe risk modeller CoreLogic has released its own estimates for the Camp and Woolsey Fires, suggesting that 48,390 homes with a total reconstruction cost value (RCV) of approximately $18 billion may be at high or extreme risk.

This includes 31,394 homes with an RCV of $7.28 billion at risk from the Camp Wildfire and 16,996 homes with an RCV of $11.04 billion at risk from the Woolsey Wildfire, although both figures represent a worst case scenario in which all at-risk structures at totally destroyed.

The smaller Hill Wildfire in Ventura County has also burnt through 4,531 acres and destroyed or damaged four structures, but containment has now reached 85% and its spread has largely been curtailed.

The potential impact of this recent outbreak of wildfires for the re/insurance industry currently remains largely unclear, although significant losses will be inevitable.

Morgan Stanley’s preliminary estimate of $2-4 billion for the Camp Fire is based on an assessment of the average property prices in Paradise, as well as a comparison with the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which destroyed 5,636 structures and caused insured losses of around $8 billion.

As with the Tubbs Fire, the Woolsey Fire is likely to drive more insured losses despite affecting a smaller number of structures, due to the higher average value of properties in the at-risk areas.

Auto and vehicle losses from the wildfires also remain uncertain, but are sure to drive further losses for the insurance and reinsurance industries.

However, analysts have suggested that losses could be alleviated if it is determined that PG&E is responsible for igniting the Camp Fire, as California law would require that the company assume financial responsibility for the damages caused, regardless of whether negligence was involved.

Complicating the situation further is the fact the PG&E is the beneficiary of insurance provided by the $200 million Cal Phoenix Re Ltd. (Series 2018-1) catastrophe bond, which provides third-party property liability insurance coverage for wildfire outbreaks in California.

Insurance-linked securities (ILS) and catastrophe bond investment manager Plenum has also stated that the wildfires will caused increased levels of volatility and discounts in pricing on the secondary market for cat bonds exposed to the peril, as reported yesterday by our sister site, Artemis.

Insurers and reinsurers will be watching the development of the wildfires closely over the coming days as the full extent of the damage emerges and as more catastrophe risk modelling firms begin to release preliminary loss estimates.

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