Damage from major forest fires in Europe has increased dramatically, with a 75% increase in the amount of land burned in the past year, according to analysis by Chaucer, the specialist reinsurer/insurer, which warns that Forest fire risk modeling in Europe lags behind United States and Canada.
In 2020, 787,130 hectares of land (or 2 million acres) were burned in 35 European countries, compared to 450,250 hectares (1.1 million acres) in 2019. (Chaucer defined large forest fires as more than 30 hectares).
Although much attention has been paid to the impact of climate change on wildfires in North America, Chaucer warns that European wildfires have also increased in frequency and severity due to climate change and the ‘urbanization. Higher temperatures have increased the risk of fires on the mainland, while dry ground drought conditions also facilitate the rapid spread of wildfires, the insurer continued.
The abandonment of traditional agriculture in Mediterranean countries has contributed to an accumulation of vegetation, leading to an increase in the size and severity of fires. Additionally, Europe is a densely populated continent, which increases the risk of material loss.
Chaucer said forest management practices have not kept up with these trends, which has made efforts to suppress wildfires significantly less effective, causing more damage.
Less advanced models
Chaucer says forest fire risk modeling capabilities in southern Europe are less advanced compared to the United States and Canada. Therefore, re/insurance companies should rely on internal methods to assess risk rather than probabilistic risk models.
However, the industry has started to see broker-led initiatives and solutions, Chaucer noted.
Because wildfires have only recently been considered a material peril, the modeling used to predict behavior is not as developed as that of other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, the company explained.
The large number of variables that influence the behavior of wildfires, such as weather, fuel, property characteristics, topography (orientation towards the sun and slope of the terrain, for example), also make the models difficult to predict.
The countries that have seen the largest increases in the amount of land burned over the past year are Bosnia and Herzegovina (246%); Croatia (130%); Italy (36%) and Greece (34%). A single fire in Bosnia and Herzegovina has burned more than 8,000 hectares.
“The significant increase in land destroyed by wildfires creates a challenge for the industry,” commented Ellen Gyandzhuntseva, exhibition management manager at Chaucer.
“Climate change and changing demographic patterns are making wildfires more dangerous. Until modeling becomes more sophisticated and the risk is better understood, the risk of forest fires in Europe will be difficult to assess adequately,” she added.
“Forest fires only became a major priority as a peril relatively recently. However, given the increase in frequency and severity, the casualties are starting to pile up. We have already seen some re/insurers start limiting their exposure accordingly,” Gyandzhuntseva said.
Photograph: Firefighters attempt to put out flames in the village of Ellinika on the island of Evia, about 176 kilometers (110 miles) north of Athens, Greece, Monday August 9, 2021. Firefighters and Locals have battled this massive wildfire on Greece’s second-largest island, struggling to save what they can from the blazes that have decimated large swathes of primeval forest, destroyed homes and businesses and sent thousands of people on the run. Photo credit: AP Photo/Petros Karadjias.
Catastrophe Natural disasters Forest fire Europe
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