The contrast between the recent above-average rainfall in southern England and the abnormal heatwave in southern Australia could hardly be more vivid. While the former is dampening spirits, the latter – coupled with prolonged drought – is igniting devastating wildfires on an unprecedented scale. It is perhaps easy to disconnect the two events by distance but in a relatively short space of time it is quite feasible that the situation could reverse, with the UK experiencing drought and area fires over the coming summer – hopefully, not on the same scale. In fact, the UK suffered 135 wildfires up to the end of June 2019, the highest number on record. 

The conflagration

2019 has witnessed catastrophic wildfires occurring around the globe. From Sweden and Siberia to Brazil and California. President Macron of France has said that ‘our house is burning’. (22 August)

As the world’s climate warms, and land-based water resources shrink, many areas are susceptible to damaging wildfires. Such fires affect all income types equally, and are no respecters of property or infrastructures. The likes of the Ronald Reagan and Getty Museums in California were at one time under threat of being consumed, while the Sydney landmarks in Australia is shrouded in smoke as bush fires encroach. Towns and cities are not exempt; witness the major wildfire at Fort McMurray in Canada in 2016.

The damage is not confined to the flames. Combustion of forests and moorland releases vast amounts of carbon. Globally, forest fires produce as much as a quarter of carbon emissions every year. Besides the direct deaths from fires, it has been calculated that between 260,000 and 600,000 people die from smoke from wildfires because of respiratory problems. The sooty particles from fires can also travel vast distances: the snowfields of New Zealand have turned brown from the soot carried afar from the Australian bush fires, increasing the glacial melting. Drinking water can also be contaminated, as happened in Colorado after a single wildfire in 2002.

Coping with the inferno

Resisting the onslaught of massive wildfires – beyond tackling climate change – is a real challenge for countries and communities. Besides waiting for rains, fire-fighting is the obvious and immediate answer but requires large numbers of full-time and volunteer firefighters who have to work for days or weeks at a time, as well as specialist aircraft and equipment. This all needs to be resourced, prepared, trained and available. In fire-prone areas, such preparation is all about being resilient.

According to Allianz and the Insurance Information Institute, business owners can increase their resilience to wildfires by taking the following steps to safeguard employees and property:

• Establish and maintain a five-foot ‘no-burn zone’ around every business property so that nothing can ignite. Defensible space provides crucial protection against wildfire. (Even this may be insufficient for a fast-moving fire with embers blowing ahead of the main fires for miles and igniting other areas at a distance.)

• Clear brush and relocate flammable materials away from combustible construction materials.

• Consider the application of fire-fighting foam (both pre-treatment and suppression) around business property or on combustible building materials. Utilise wildfire-resistant building materials.

• Develop an employee safety plan in the event of a wildfire.

• Have a business continuity plan in place.

Business owners should also discuss with their insurance providers the following key points as it pertains to wildfires:

• Their current policy coverage (what it does and does not cover).

• The various types of coverage available to protect their business and business interruption.

• Mitigation solutions and fire-protection services.

• Precautionary measures that can be taken today to prevent loss tomorrow.