A wildfire can be caused in an instant – a lightning strike, a lit cigarette thrown out of a car, misjudging wind while lighting a campfire, a tree limb striking an electrical line; these are just some of the many causes of forest fires. While mother nature can be extreme and unpredictable, we all play a role in preventing, or causing, wildfires. That is especially true for those directly involved in the tree care industry or, more specifically, in utility-vegetation management.
This article focuses on the beneficial role risk management, wildfire training, leadership culture and accountability play in the tree care industry nationwide to help support wildfire prevention. It also looks at how training can make liability insurance more affordable for contractors providing utility-line-clearance work in fire-prone areas.
A growing threat
Utility-line maintenance is a hazardous job. This risk only increases during wildfire season, which appears to be turning into a year-long weather trend. Vegetation-management crews work to cut back brush, limb trees and fell hazardous trees on or near charged power lines. Often, these work areas are in remote, mountainous locations. Recent utility-line equipment failures that ignited large, catastrophic wildfires have led utility crews to become more involved with wildfire risk management and training.
In 2020, more than 13 million acres of the United States were burned by wildfires, and more than $3.6 billion was spent in fire-suppression costs (Source: National Interagency Fire Center). Six of the top 20 most destructive wildfires on record occurred in 2020. Since 2015, five of the top 20 wildfires were started by powerlines, including the most destructive fire, with causes of six others still under investigation (Source: Cal Fire statistics dated 4/28/2021).
While wildfires are most prevalent in California, recent activity is showing that surrounding states are also much more susceptible, as noted last year in Oregon, Washington and Arizona and already this year in those states, as well as in Nevada, Idaho and Montana. Last year, the number of wildfires in California rose more than 20% from 2019, according to calculations based on Cal Fire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) statistics from April 2021 data. However, the number of acres burned was up 180% from the recent five-year average.
“These wildfire incidents have created an insurance crisis for utilities and
vegetation-management contractors, related in large part to contract requirements with large electric-utility providers,” says Mark Shipp, CTSP, certified insurance counselor (CIC) and senior executive vice president with HUB International Insurance Services, a 26-year TCIA corporate member company headquartered in Santa Barbara, California.
Insurance costs are still evolving and are estimated to increase from $7 billion to a staggering $13 billion (Source: Risk Management Solutions). As a result of this, in the last five years, the number of insurance carriers willing to participate in the industry has been reduced to a handful. Reinsurance companies are unwilling to back excess-liability towers (groups of individual insurance policies that a company carries) without a wildfire exclusion.
“This means insurance carriers that do write coverage for vegetation management retain more risk and charge more,” says Shipp. “Depending on the size of the operation, the cost can range from a low of $100,000 per $1 million of excess liability to $400,000. These costs are unsustainable for all involved. Each utility where wildfire is an issue is grappling with these problems in its own way.”
A new approach
To help bring the threat of wildfires and the spiraling insurance costs under control, Shipp and a group in California have created a risk-management program of fire-suppression training for utility companies and contractors engaged in this type of work nationwide. This program helps to distinguish insureds as a more attractive risk profile to insurance carriers by focusing on wildfire training, management engagement and accountability.
Shipp, a subject-matter expert in the tree care and vegetation-management insurance and risk-management space, pulled together a team of industry experts to offer this training specifically designed for the tree care industry. Other team members include Paul Cano with 2MCFire, who oversees wildfire-safety training for the group, and Josh Caudill, with Safety Leadership Innovators (SLI), who leads loss-control and leadership training. After one training workshop earlier this year, the program already has proven successful at implementing crucial wildfire training and bringing utility-insurance contracts to manageable limits without excess wildfire-liability exclusions, according to Shipp.
“There have been so many questions about how wildfires can be started by careless acts, that we sometimes forget that our actions are derived from our risk-management techniques – including our individual and company training, values and culture,” says Shipp. “Providing utility-vegetation companies with basic wildfire training that encompasses fire behavior, vegetation modeling, weather, an incident-command system, radios and topography can provide the situational awareness to prevent and mitigate wildfire ignition.”
“Basic wildfire training teaches human factors that include risk management and situational awareness,” says Cano. “This training can significantly prevent wildfire ignitions. Prevention is ultimately safer and more cost effective than suppression. Along with the training, 2MCFire has included the use of fire gel and gel-application training. Fire gel replaces water that is typically used in five-gallon backpack pumps.”
The benefit of utility-vegetation-management wildfire prevention is, first, safety, according to Shipp.
“Ensuring that utility crews can recognize wildfire hazards and potential risks allows for escape routes along with safety zones to be in place before hazardous work activity begins. Wildfire training puts in place a go/no-go checklist that can reduce risk and wildfire ignition. And if an ignition occurs, utility crews can effectively attempt to suppress or evacuate the area safely.”
Modeling safety and accountability
In addition to proper training and awareness, another risk-management technique that has a tremendous impact on wildfire prevention is an organizational culture of leadership, according to Caudill, who provides a comprehensive framework for training and guidance on effective leadership through modeling safety and accountability.
“A leader who communicates that cutting corners is OK in order to get a project completed quickly and within budget can establish a culture over time in which cutting corners to achieve praise and recognition can become normalized, defining the culture of that individual,” says Caudill. “Enough buy-in of the normalcy of cutting corners from other leaders, and this becomes the culture of an organization.
“Conversely, a leader with a tremendous number of followers might not understand the impact of his/her actions among that group or others within that culture. A leader may not recognize that exhibiting behavior that promotes learning and planning to complete projects without cutting corners could just as easily define and mold a culture within an organization.”
“The reason for leadership to support the communication of wildfire prevention is simple – it is our responsibility to do our part to prevent wildfires from occurring because of our actions on projects,” says Shipp. “The immediate loss of life, the devastation to the environment and the emotional toll it takes on the people impacted are more than enough reasons to do the right thing.”
“Regardless of your status as a leader in the tree care industry, there are some simple ideas that we all can use each day to greatly reduce the potential for wildfire on our projects,” says Shipp.
Examples he provides include:
- Discuss ways to prevent wildfires with your crew members. Create an open dialogue to encourage proper planning and execution of safe work.
- Discuss strategies with your team to prevent ignition points on your projects.
- Align wildfire prevention with other safety communication efforts.
- Train your employees on how to effectively prevent wildfires, and to prepare for their safety if an event occurs.
- Provide your employees with the knowledge, resources and guidance they need to conduct operations without contributing to wildfire risk.
- Hold yourself and your team accountable for appropriate planning in fire-prone areas.
“Anyone who has ever seen a wildfire or been impacted by a wildfire will tell you that the trauma around wildfire events can last a lifetime,” says Shipp. “So, protecting our people, protecting our environment and protecting our future are all reasons to create a culture of wildfire prevention.
“If your state has any potential for wildfire exposure, please make sure you have written, documented and systematic wildfire training in place. Speak with your risk-management professional,” says Shipp. “Wildfire prevention starts with you.”
The risk-management program for fire-suppression training developed by Mark Shipp and his group currently is, at least for now, only available to HUB International insureds with coverage through ArborMax. A website for the program is under development. For more information, visit www.hubinternational.com.