NFPA Journal - May/June 2020 - 60

Wildfire by Michele Steinberg

THE VIEW
FROM NFPA'S
WILDFIRE DIVISION

The Andrew Effect
WHAT WILL IT TAKE FOR WILDFIRES TO ONCE AGAIN
BE NATURAL EVENTS RATHER THAN NATURAL DISASTERS?

t was fitting that this
buildings. By 2002, the new building code
year's NFPA annual conwas in place statewide, along with wind
ference and expo had been
velocity mapping to ensure the strongest
scheduled for Florida, a
protections in the most vulnerable areas.
state with a lot to teach
Nearly 20 years later, safety experts
us about how regulatory action can help
agree that the code has made a difference
build resilience to natural disasters. C&E
in reducing property loss from hurrihas been cancelled, but Florida's lessons
canes. In 2017, Hurricane Irma, more
remain especially valuable for officials
powerful than Andrew, wreaked havoc
in California and elsewhere who are
in the Caribbean and packed significant
involved in complex efforts to blunt the
winds when it hit Florida. Even so, it
impact of wildfire on their communities.
resulted in about a quarter of the losses
Florida has its share of wildfire, too,
of Andrew, which experts attributed to
but hurricanes have historically been
the fact that nearly 80 percent of the
At some point,
the state's most destructive forces-none
structures in Irma's path had been built
we need a large
more so than Hurricane Andrew, which
to the stronger codes.
wildfire to sweep over
pummeled Miami-Dade County in 1992.
What does this mean for wildfire? To
the landscape with
Some 65,000 structures were destroyed,
say that insurance and risk management
with thousands of homes and businesses
for wildfires is complex would be a laughlimited damage to
reduced to concrete slabs-familiar sights
able understatement. But what Florida
people and property.
to victims of recent California wildfires in
was able to do post-Andrew is a proof
communities including Paradise, Santa
of concept. After unprecedented losses,
Rosa, and many others.
Florida's regulators, insurers, and poliIn retrospect, it's easy to see why the
cymakers realized that maintaining the
devastation was so severe. In 1992, Florida's statewide building status quo was an invitation for future disasters and loss; they
code largely ignored some of the new science related to wind absorbed important lessons and applied the necessary fixes.
resistance for new residential construction, allowing unsafe Three decades later, the state is now in a significantly better
structures to be built across the state. Meanwhile, insurers place. There is no reason to believe that officials in California
vastly underestimated the vulnerability of Florida homes to and other vulnerable places around the world can't take a simhurricane-force winds. Andrew resulted in insured losses of ilar approach with wildfire.
about $25 billion, or roughly $46 billion in today's dollars. It
Through events like the Camp Fire and and this year's Auswas an unthinkable number at the time for a single incident; 11 tralian bushfires, we've experienced the wildfire version of
insurance companies went out of business, and others retreated Andrew repeatedly in recent years. At some point, the wildfire
from the Florida market. A lot of this might sound familiar to community needs its Irma moment, when a large fire sweeps
anyone who has followed California's recent wildfire disasters. over the landscape with limited damage to people and property.
And yet, the aftermath of Andrew is regarded as a resound- We won't get there with building codes alone, but sound building success. After the hurricane, state regulators and insurers ing design and siting are excellent places to start. If we add a
got to work fixing these now-obvious deficiencies. Regulators bit of political will, cross-agency collaboration, and an assist
created a wind pool-a state-mandated risk-sharing program from emerging technologies, we might get to a place where the
that all insurers pay into-to ensure adequate damage coverage wildfires of 2040 will simply be natural events, not disasters.
for high-risk coastal properties. Meanwhile, insurers insisted
the state develop a risk-based building code to keep roofs on MICHELE STEINBERG is director of the wildfire division at NFPA.

MICHAEL HOEWELER

I

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NFPA Journal - May/June 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of NFPA Journal - May/June 2020

Contents
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NFPA Journal - May/June 2020 - Contents
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