home Insurance Article

4 Ways Technology is Fighting Fires

If the world doesn’t end come December 21st, 2012 will have to be remembered for something else.

Perhaps 2012 will be recalled as a year of damaging wildfires, as the first nine months left a trail of ash in many areas of the United States. With three months left in the year, the onset of autumn’s cooler temperatures and precipitation may slow down the destruction for some regions. The West Coast, though, still faces higher threats of devastating wildfires. We may not have seen 2012’s last fire.

One of the contributing factors — maybe the factor — is the nationwide drought, among the biggest the U.S. has ever faced. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture even had to issue its largest disaster declaration in July. Some of the worst began in New Mexico n May (which also resulted in the state’s largest wildfire in history). Coming in at a close second was Colorado, where, according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association (RMIIA), the Waldo Canyon Fire and the High Park fire have already resulted in approximately $450 million in losses. The Waldo Canyon fire shared something with New Mexico, as it’s now the fire that did the most damage in Colorado’s history.

Between the number of wildfires that ravished whole cities and extremely large portions of individual states, the numbers continue to add up. So far, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NFIC), approximately 8.7 million acres have burned this year so far, meaning it’s slowly becoming competition for the record of 9.8 million acres that burned in 2006.

Ring of Fire

There are still fires raging on as well—no surprise they’re doing so on the West Coast. Currently there are over 20 wildfires still burning in the Pacific Northwest. California, Washington, and especially Idaho have fires burning that still require attention. Idaho has actually had more acreage burn than any other state—1,529,715 acres to be exact, according to the NIFC. As for the large insurance losses, California got its fair share too though—a fire in northern California brought 50 structures to their knees. As of last week, new fires were even popping up in California, one of which has burned 60 acres. The newest fires are being targeted, but according to the U.S. Forest Service, residents from 200 homes had to mandatorily evacuate from. Its neighbor, Washington, did have a wildfire that caused more than 60 structures being lost.

Between the combination of those fires still burning, three months left in the year, and already astronomical amounts of fire still burning, the NIFC is betting their money that 2012 will beat the record of 2006—the NIFC says the number of acres that have burned by this point of the year exceeds the ten year average by 2 million acres.

Risky Business

Much of the largest east coast battles are fought against winter weather, flooding, and tornadoes—and it’s only common sense that insurance protection like flood insurance is imperative and should be obtained by those in high risk flood zones. Those who know they’re in a high risk flood zone (hopefully) know what threats they face like those living in high-risk wildfire areas do. However, fires often begin without notice as opposed to floods.

Additionally, although both are devastating, it’s more common to hear about making sure homes are protected against flood by purchasing flood risk insurance, but unfortunately homeowners in high-risk fire areas often don’t hear enough about having adequate insurance to protect them against the flaming threats they’re likely to face. This could be because fire is covered by homeowners insurance. However, just because homeowners insurance covers fire doesn’t mean a homeowner is protected adequately.

Stop, Drop, and Prepare

We’ve come a long way when it comes to fighting fires—we’re way past buckets of water and are now equipped with dragon-tail-like hoses and advanced chemicals to help put out fires, such as advanced firefighting chemicals from companies like Pyrocool, based out of Virginia.

Not only are such products now an aid in fighting fire, but are so technological advances that are available to even consumers. Homeowners facing these risks have to know more than how to stop, drop, and roll, and here are just a few ways ‘fire is being fought with fire’ by utilizing technology.

1.) Assess your risk factor.

Like many who fail to even check to see if they’re in a flood zone, the same is true for wildfires. Unfortunately there’s no putting it off—fire will show up like a thief in the night—a flaming, dangerous, costly, and consuming one. Imagine years ago when there weren’t flying firefighter helicopters spinning overhead, when mass evacuation notices got to people too late, when people didn’t see the news to know that a devastating fire is burning their way or when—worst of all—someone relocated to an area and didn’t know they were even in a high-risk area.

Now, it’s easy to find out if you live in a high-risk area, and it’s easy to find out what likely damage there’d be to your specific area. There’s now plenty of history to go on, risks to assess, and ways to check risk probability that better inform homeowners. You can check via good old-fashioned fire risk maps—much like floodplain maps—or use zipcode tools like one from DisasterSafety.org to learn about these calculated risks.

Keep in mind though that those in areas deemed lower risk can actually still be high-risk—like those who live in deep wooded areas, near campgrounds, grasslands, and other rural locations. Not only do homeowners need to find out if the broader area they live is a high-risk flood zone, but everyone should assess their home’s surroundings to see if its prime tinder.

2.) Utilize Apps and Online Tools

No surprise–there are apps for this too, like ‘Know Your Plan.’ This app can be used on any Apple product and was designed by the Insurance Information Institute (III). The IBHS partnered with them to create an app providing protection guidance, and includes features like disaster preparedness checklists for practically every natural disaster—winter weather, tornadoes, earthquakes, and of course, wildfires among others. Preparedness features in the app include being able to create an emergency checklist and develop a plan, including the option to set reminders for yourself to complete certain tasks from the list. Better yet, you can share your plans or suggestions with others via social media networks. You can also create a cost estimator, helping determine priority to precautions you can make based on costs.

Organizations like The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) and DisasterSafety.org also use online tools as a way to educate citizens, providing a great number of guides and checklists to use, such as the ‘Wildfire Home Assessment & Checklist.’

3.) Getting the Word Out

Like raging fires that grow stronger the more they burn, learning habits and public awareness has also evolved too. Some states are even taking their own approaches in informing the public about dealing with fires. From September 9th to the 15th, Colorado residents were able to participate in a hands-on workshop which taught homeowners about new and improved fire-resistant construction materials and about home maintenance to help reduce fire losses. The workshops were hosted by the Fire Adapted Communities Coalition and Lowes. These kinds of efforts demonstrate using technology for fire preparedness—using online presence like social media and blogging in order to inform the public about such an event that teaches homeowners about the advancements in construction due to greater technology.

4.) Homeowners Insurance

Perhaps one of the greatest advancements of all that could (hopefully not) turn out to be of great value is your homeowners insurance. This seems like a no brainer, but just having homeowners insurance itself doesn’t make one prepared for fires. The fact is that many people underinsure their homes, fail to update insurers about any changes to their home which could cause a need for more coverage and leave them with insufficient replacement costs. Replacement cost is the amount your home is insured for—insurers require you to insure it up to 80% of it would cost to rebuild the home from the ground up if there was a total loss, although 100% is obviously the best choice, especially since homes usually appreciate in value and since inflation is practically guaranteed (meaning if your home were a total loss, it would cost more to rebuild it since prices for supplies would undoubtedly be higher than what they cost when the home was originally built and increase each year).

Too many people neglect adding essential coverage options like inflation guard to their homeowners insurance policies, which automatically factors in a home’s appreciation at a percentage you choose (typically 4 to 6%) and thereby increases the home’s replacement cost by the chosen amount annually. However, even having this doesn’t equate to sufficient coverage if the homeowner has made significant changes greatly increasing the home’s value.

Best of all, since insurers now have the means to analyze and track so much data, they can better help you make the best decisions and inform you of possible large risks.

In a perfect world, Smokey the Bear would be protecting us all against fires, but that’s only in a world where Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy live. Sometimes, there’s no stopping fires, but at least if one does come your way and you’ve made all the necessary preparations, you can at least say you were fighting with fire.

-Follow Desiree on Twitter @DesireeBaughman.

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