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Risk Assessment
Protection of assets from wildland fires

When the Highly Protected Risk (HPR) insurance industry was established in 1835, many major European cities had already suffered devastating urban conflagrations. The newly industrializing and urbanizing United States was beginning to suffer these conflagrations as well. Through modern building construction, fire protection features, and strong fire brigade, urban conflagrations have become a thing of the past two centuries. Unfortunately, they have been replaced with major fires in what has come to be called the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). In other parts of the world, these fires are known as bush fires or by other names.

Although major forest fires are not new, people have been steadily building in forested areas. Forest fires are now destroying hundreds of homes at a time, often very high end homes. Thus far, industrial and major commercial property have been largely spared from these fires. As society moves further into WUI areas, and as fires become more frequent1, it seems inevitable that industrial and large commercial locations are affected more frequently. In fact, as this article was being prepared, a cooling tower was destroyed by a late-season wildland fire.

Current standards for protecting industrial facilities from exposure fires are based on exposures from other buildings, bulk storage tanks, chemical plants, etc. They are not intended for wildland fire exposure. Wildland fire exposures are different because:

• Fire behavior can be underestimated, even by risk managers and property loss prevention specialists.

• Wildland fires are a discipline unto themselves; there is a huge gap in knowledge between wildland specialists and property specialists.

• Embers can travel a tremendous distance, carried by the huge thermal columns and high winds.

• Likewise, smoke can travel a tremendous distance and contaminate processes or stock.

• They can last for several days or weeks compared to hours or a few days.

• The public fire service may not be able to dedicate crews to exposure protection because there are so many simultaneous demands placed on them.

Nevertheless, compliance with existing good practice can help limit damage. For example, maintaining insulated metal panel exterior covering lessens the chance that a flying ember will ignite the interior insulation. If the panels are listed or approved, the chance of ignition is further reduced. Likewise, keeping exterior idle pallet storage the proper distance from the main building reduces the chance that a pallet fire caused by a flying ember will spread to the facility.

In this article, we will start a list of practical measures that can be taken beyond standard recommendations. WE-mail the author with additional suggestions. They will be shared in a future issue.

• Follow NFPA 1141, Standard for Fire Protection Infrastructure for Land Development in Wildland, Rural, and Suburban Areas, and 1144 Standard for Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire. 

• Follow the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) publication Creating a Fire Adapted Home (http://www.disastersafety.org/wp-content/uploads/creating-fire-adapted-home_IBHS-Contact-Info.pdf) Like the above NFPA documents, the methodology and logic can de adapted for larger facilities, especially for out buildings and remote infrastructure such as intake pumps, propane tanks, transformers, etc.

• Be aware and follow additional local guidance. This tends to be more suited for local conditions.

• Idle pallet (or other storage) separation from the edge of the woods should be evaluated in addition to separation from the facility. Besides reducing the chance of igniting the storage, this can also keep a storage fire from igniting the woods.

• Consider one or two sided sheds to keep embers from landing on idle pallets.

• Have the ability to reverse fans to keep smoke out of the facility.

• Provide on-site power supplies of longer duration than usual based on threat analysis of the public power supply.

• Add wildland fire threat assessment to business continuity planning efforts.

 

Business Interruption

WUI fires can create business interruption exposures that might not otherwise be considered. Some examples are:

• Pipelines break or leak because of landslides. Such fires burn away all vegetation which in turn leaves the soil unable to absorb rainwater. This can lead to landslides long after the fire.

• Loss of power due to damage to wind turbines, geothermal plants or high tension wires.

• Loss of satellite signals due to severe smoke obscuration.

• Inability of employees to get to work or shipments to come in or go out due to heavy smoke in the area or smoke in the facility.

• Smoke damaged goods that cannot be shipped.

• Soot and ash fallout can contaminate drinking or process water supplies.

• Unlike other fires, these fires have widespread impact, similar to hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and floods, and create competition for recovery resources.

    

Trends and Possible Solutions

At the beginning of the 19th century, insurance companies ran or funded the fire brigades in major cities. That model is returning to deal with WUI conflagrations. At least one U.S. insurance company sent private firefighters to protect multi-million dollar homes in the U.S. state of Colorado. There are already companies that specialize in private fire fighting response to industrial fires. It is possible, for example, that they could be used to provide standby fire protection at major sites to quell rooftop fires started by flying embers. It is likely that the public fire brigades are too heavily committed to the main fire to be able to protect every exposed industrial or large commercial building.

 

Future Research

XL GAPS is a supporting member of IBHS. This large-scale wind research lab, located in the U.S. state of South Carolina is primarily known for designing facilities to resist hurricane or typhoon force winds. They have also done research on how to protect residential structures from wind driven embers. (See photo at right). This same methodology could be used to evaluate industrial infrastructure, such as cooling towers, solar arrays, etc.   

Feel free to contact the author at john.frank@xlgroup.com

1There are interrelated reasons for the increase which are beyond the scope of this article.

 

XL GAPS is a leading loss prevention services provider and a member of the XL Group of companies. XL Group plc’s insurance companies offer property, casualty, professional and specialty insurance products globally. Businesses that are moving the world forward choose XL as their partner. To learn more, visit xlgroup.com/insurance. XL Group is the global brand used by XL Group plc’s insurance subsidiaries. XL Group plc, through its subsidiaries, is a global insurance and reinsurance company providing property, casualty, and specialty products to industrial, commercial, and professional firms, insurance companies and other enterprises on a worldwide basis. More information about XL Group plc is available at www.xlgroup.com.

 

 
 

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