Worsening Fire Risk in the Western United States

The increased risk that wildfire poses to property, forests, and human life in the Western United States is all too apparent in the aftermath of the 2020 fire season, considered to be the worst fire season on-record. According to the national large incident reports from the GACC, over 13 million acres were burned through the course of the fire season, with over 18,000 structures destroyed and over $3 billion spent in suppression costs alone. 

While wildfire has historically had a regular presence in the American West, an ever-increasing population has led to increased building and human presence in previously remote areas. Combined with worsening climate conditions west of the Rockies in recent years, this expansion of settlement into wild areas has resulted in increased devastation during wildfire events.

Fire Risk Maps - June through November 2020

June 2020

July 2020

August 2020

September 2020

October 2020

November 2020

According to maps from the USGS Fire Danger website, throughout the 2020 fire season, every state in the Western United States experienced an increased fire risk. Traditionally drier states, such as those in the South West and parts of California, experienced heavy fire potentiality in the early-to-mid summer months. Heavily forested areas of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest experienced increased fire risk in late-summer and into early Fall, leading to excessively dry conditions in forests which normally do not pose a dire threat. 

These conditions hit close to home for Hewn on Labor Day Weekend, when an excessively strong windstorm combined with exceedingly dry conditions to create the perfect conditions for combustion. Wildfires caused by lightning strikes and prohibited campfires led to the Portland metropolitan area being engulfed in a thick layer of smoke, much of which lingered for weeks. Demand for air purifiers skyrocketed as the smoke settled in the Willamette Valley, and many residents left town for cleaner air.

Portland, Oregon's historic waterfront on September 13th, 2020
View of Downtown Portland, Oregon on September 9th, 2020

Recent years have seen an increase in legislations, guidelines, and restrictions concerning structures located in high fire-risk areas. Despite this, many homeowners are encountering the most friction from their insurance providers. In an effort to minimize losses posed by wildfire risk, home insurance providers are increasingly terminating coverage to customers located in high-risk areas, with some applicants having to apply to multiple insurance providers in hope of receiving coverage. 

In some instances, insurance providers may allow coverage if foliage and other high-risk items are removed from a certain “defensible space” perimeter surrounding structures on the property. Insurers may also take into consideration the types of materials used in the structure’s roof, eaves, and siding, providing coverage in otherwise uninsurable areas if enough conditions are met. While many structures may be grandfathered in to prior building codes that did not require certain fire-safe materials, the growing pressure from insurance companies makes retrofitting existing structures a potential cost-and-life-saving measure in the long run.

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Near Hewn's manufacturing facility in Tualatin, Oregon on September 10th, 2020

Hewn is dedicated to bringing new California Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) compliant and Class A fire rated real-wood siding to the market in the first half of 2021.

After witnessing the devastating destruction in California these past many fire seasons, as well as our own catastrophic fires in the Pacific Northwest, Hewn has allocated an unprecedented amount of resources towards creating new solutions to age-old fire protection problems. These products are designed to meet state and international guidelines on fire protection, without sacrificing the ultimate ideal of having genuine wood siding on nature-adjacent structures.

Hewn’s fire-conscious offerings are on target to be the first-of-their-kind on the market, continuing Hewn’s trend of industry-disrupting innovation to meet the needs of architects, designers, builders, and the public at large.