Wildfire ‘Richter scale’ may aid risk pricing

Researchers are developing a measure for wildfire destruction which could help insurance carriers calculate premiums.

Wildfire ‘Richter scale’ may aid risk pricing

Catastrophe & Flood


The earthquake-measuring Richter and Mercalli scales have helped the insurance community calculate homeowners and natural disaster insurance premiums for nearly 80 years. Now, a new measurement scale may assist carriers and producers in doing the same thing with wildfires.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) hopes its Wildland Urban Interface Hazard Scale will be able to assign intensity codes ranging from E1 to E4 in wildfire-prone regions. And with wildfires destroying about 3,000 homes per year, insurers are hardly less excited about the prospects.

In Colorado, where wildfires have ravaged some communities for two years running, insurance claims have topped $858m. A magnitude scale may be able to prevent some of those losses and make natural disaster insurance policies more solvent.

NIST intends its scale to be applied to forested areas, grasslands and other wildland containing homes prone to wildfire. Researchers Alex Maranghides and William Mell are analyzing grasses, trees, shrubs, weather patterns and building materials to create an accurate scale.

However, senior scientist Steve Quarles with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety—which helped test home flammability with NIST—says the results could be a long time coming.

“It’s a useful framework as a way to think about exposure levels, but there’s a fair amount of additional work that would need to be done to turn it into something applicable,” Quarles said. “You’d need to make sure the scale worked and then tie that information to appropriate [building] codes and standards.”

In the meantime, Quarles recommends insurance professionals remind clients about basic wildfire prevention if they live in a disaster-prone area. One thing to particularly look out for is ember prevention.

“No matter how big your property, it’s unlikely to fully eliminate ember exposure. Embers will fly over any defensible space and land on or next to your house,” he said. “So no firewood pile, no plants that could be ignited, and no siding too close to the ground.”

Quarles also recommended installing a metal-drip edge on roofs and some rock or hardscape features within the five-foot perimeter around the home.

Keep up with the latest news and events

Join our mailing list, it’s free!