house-fireIt’s another severe forest fire season for Americans living west of the Mississippi.  That’s putting property owners and their insurance companies in an increasingly tighter bind and perhaps increasingly forcing them to turn to their attorneys and experts for help.

Two factors are major contributors to the problem: more people living in more rural, fire prone areas and a warmer climate.

According to NBC News, the U.S. Forest Service reports that twice as many acres burn each year compared to 40 years ago.  Since the start of 2000, an estimated 145,000 square miles have burned.  That’s roughly the size of New York, New England, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland combined.

The forest fire season is now two months longer than in the past.  From 1977 to the present, the average U.S. temperature has climbed 1.6 degrees (in Arizona, where 19 firefighters were recently killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire, it went up 2.3 degrees).  That may not seem like much, but Steve Running, the fire ecologist at the University of Montana said “Even a degree or so warmer, day in day out, evaporates water faster and that desiccates the system more.”

While the temperatures are increasing and fires are becoming more common and severe, more Americans are moving into fire prone areas.  According to Reuters:

  • Between 2000 and 2010, 10 million new homes were built in wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas in which residences either border or are built on land prone to wildfires,
  • Those homes in WUI areas accounted for two-thirds of all homes built in the U.S. during that time, according to research jointly conducted by the Forest Service, University of Wisconsin and Oregon State University, and
  • Nationwide, more than 47 million homes, or 36 percent, reside in the WUI, which is only ten percent of the country’s area, the research showed.

Wildfires caused $13.7 billion in total economic losses and $7.9 billion in insured losses from 2002 through 2011.  That’s a dramatic increase from the prior decade, which saw $6.8 billion in economic losses and $1.7 billion in insured losses.

Given those figures, push back from insurance companies is inevitable.  Stricter rules are being imposed on property owners seeking insurance in fire prone areas.  The new rules incentivize or require homeowners to create “defensible spaces,” an area around the house cleared of debris and overhanging branches that could contribute to fire spreading to a house.

If there’s a fire loss and the property owner couldn’t maintain that space, or if the insurance company claims that space wasn’t maintained, that may lead to disputes over insurance claims.  Expert witnesses in insurance coverage, bad faith, construction and landscaping may be needed.  Attorneys representing insurance companies, and the insured, may find demand for their services heating up in the future all thanks to the inexorable warming of the climate and increasing desire of homeowners to live away from it all.

By: Rodney Warner, J.D.