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Wildfires in fall: How to protect your business?

September 7, 2018

Wildfires are still a threat in the fall, despite its cooler temperatures. Zurich’s Risk Engineers share advice to help businesses protect their employees and property from these severe weather events.

Richard Gallagher

Line of Business Director for Property, Risk Engineering, The Zurich Services Corporation

Rich Gallagher joined Zurich in 2003 as a Senior Risk Engineering Consultant managing large property... About this expert

wildfire being extinguished

The 2018 wildfire season has already made headlines. California’s Mendocino Complex Fire is the biggest thus far in the state’s history. Another 12 states have reported large wildfires as of late August, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). As of August 30, the NIFC reports that wildfires have burned nearly 6.5 million acres in the U.S.

The threat for these severe weather events isn’t over. It may surprise some that in autumn, despite cooler temperatures, the risk for wildfires can grow. Vegetation – much of it still vulnerable from the summer’s intense heat – will be drying even more, creating a perfect fuel for wildfires. Last year, claims for California’s wildfires  in October alone topped $9.4 billion.

It’s also a misconception to think wildfires are only a problem in California. In fact, the aforementioned NIFC list of 2018 wildfires includes Alaska. Wildfires can and do occur in every state, putting lives and property in jeopardy. It’s imperative that every business’s emergency management strategy include a plan that addresses actions before, during and after an event.

An effective plan must be quick, simple and practiced. Wildfires can travel quickly, up to 14 mph. They are also unpredictable. Strong winds can abruptly change a fire’s direction as well as expand its size. Even properties far from the main blaze are vulnerable. Airborne embers can be carried across seemingly fireproof rivers or asphalt roads to set new fires as far as three miles away.

Some points to consider as you address this risk:

Build a strong wildfire plan: Appoint a wildfire team at your facility that is authorized to put your plan into action; establish evacuation procedures that are communicated to and practiced by employees; and create a contact sheet for emergency services, insurance representatives, suppliers and vendors. Your wildfire team should be well-versed in emergency duties that will help mitigate losses. Invite local firefighters to review your plan.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of pre-event drills. With wildfires, you may have only a few hours to move everyone out of harm’s way and undertake the actions to protect your facility. You must be sure your team can perform these duties in a time of extreme duress.

Safety first, business continuity second: Everyone’s safety is paramount, which is why a forced evacuation must be obeyed when civil authorities order one. However, shutting down a business can result in a severe loss of revenue. A business continuity plan, whatever the emergency, must address as many risks as possible. If you’re in data processing, have a backup site. If you’re a distributor, have more than one distribution center. If you’re in manufacturing, identify the equipment crucial to your business, and either take it with you or have a backup elsewhere. You also need to have contractors and vendors lined up to help you recover. In short, figure out how you can continue normal operations or as close-to-normal operations as possible.

Protect your building: While it’s impossible to make a property completely fireproof, many actions can help minimize a wildfire’s impact. Create a defensible space around your facility, with 25 feet of open space between your property and vegetative scrub and 200 feet from forested areas. Ensure that exterior surfaces are non-combustible or resistant to ignition by embers. For example, replace wood soffits with metal soffits.

For building interiors, we have found that the majority of damage to our customers has been related to soot and smoke, not the blazes themselves. After a customer returned to their site after the devastating 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires in Canada, one of the first things they did was turn on the HVAC system. It pulled in all the soot on the roof into the air intakes, which contaminated the entire building and destroyed equipment. Find ways to keep soot and smoke from entering the facility; for example, install louvers that automatically close when they’re not being used.

The autumn months, with their particular risks, will likely see more destruction from wildfires. Are you fully prepared?

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