US insurance companies no longer cover prescribed burning and are creating an environment where it is no longer financially viable for foresters to perform “science-based planning for fire behaviour.”
A report published by US-based Mongabay last week alleges that insurance companies are now charging unaffordable premiums for coverage, with many small conservation groups and private businesses “getting out of the habit of using fire to improve grassland health, boost wildlife habitat, and decrease the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires.”
The report alleges that insurance companies are now charging premiums as high as $100,000.00 (US Dollars) for $ 1 million coverage, creating “obstacles to getting more burns done in the American West.”
“An escape on a prescribed burn can happen, but it’s very rare,” Sean Hendrix told Mongabay, “you hear about them when they happen, but the % is probably less than 1% of the time,” according to Mr Hendrix, who has been responsible for managing burns for more than 20 years.
His experience aligns with US Forest Service statistics, confirming the agency conducts about six escapes out of the 4,500 fires yearly.
“That’s 99.84% of prescribed burns happening without any issues,” the US Forest Service said.
Prescribed burning, or backburning in Australia, has been an effective tool for natural resource management for generations.
According to Roger Underwood, the former Chair of the Bushfire Front, an organisation dedicated to minimising bushfire damage in Western Australia, “Planned burning is also used to maintain or improve biodiversity, protect cultural values, and manage agricultural production.”
“Carrying out planned burning operations also contributes to building the on-ground expertise of the bushfire response personnel.”
However, carrying out this work is already expensive, with the bloated insurance cost hitting the bottom line hardest for nonprofit conservation groups and private companies like the one Hendrix works for, Grayback Forestry.
According to Mr Hendrix, premiums for prescribed burning are not advertised, “but they are about ten times what they were four years ago.”
That cost comes back to the groups hiring them to do the work, such as government agencies, conservation organisations, indigenous groups and tribes, and small landowners.
“It’s just really raised the price of burning,” Mr Hendrix said, adding these are now going for nearly $3,000 per hectare.
“The liability insurance cost has skyrocketed, so we have to charge more, and that’s the hurdle.”
To address this, a social movement seeks to help companies, landowners, and citizens understand the public value of prescribed fire and to get it on the ground amid financial constraints, leading to a rise in prescribed fire associations in communities across the US West.
Residents and firefighters now band together to carry out burns on private land, sharing resources, expertise, and equipment. Still, education and training are at the core of what they do.
“We tend to think of fire as this malicious thing that we can’t work with because it’s inherently unpredictable,” according to Chris Adlam, a regional fire specialist with Oregon State University’s Extension Service involved with the Rogue Valley Prescribed Burn Association.
“But fire does things in a very predictable way. And once you understand how fire behaves, you can change how you’re putting fire on the ground,” he said.
To prove this, Adlam and others are looking at how technology can help convey the methodology of prescribed burns. An example is drones that capture infrared imagery and patrol for flames outside the defined fire boundary.
It’s a tool that Mr Hendrix’s company has now incorporated into its burn plans to keep rates down with its insurance provider. Those burn plans typically require firefighters to patrol for four or five days afterwards to monitor for smoke and embers.
“You need to be checking your burn for seven to 10 days after, and that’s where we come in with our drone,” Mr Hendrix said. “At the end, when [we] haven’t smelled the smoke, we fly the [drone] at night or early in the morning, and with our thermal imaging, it will give the temperature of whatever you’re seeing.”
The thermal imaging is then sent to insurance providers to prove the burn was conducted without issues. But Hendrix said he knows this approach isn’t attainable for everyone: the technology costs upward of $15,000.
He said he’s optimistic for the future because he’s starting to see the culture around fire shift.
“We’ve got to use all the tools in the toolbox for prescribed burning. And there’s a cost to it. But [it’s] becoming more socially acceptable,” Hendrix said. “I think we’re at a point where it’s finally going to balance out with the insurance companies coming around.”