California Infernos Put Sharp Focus on the Urgency of Wildfire Defense Strategies

Research published two decades ago could hold the key to protecting lives and property — even against the wrath of blazes like the Camp and Woolsey Fires.
By: | November 2, 2018 • 3 min read

As of November 9, a combined total of more than 1.6 million acres across California had burned, the result of more than 7,500 fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Northern California’s Camp Fire has claimed 31 lives since it broke out on Nov. 8. Another 200 people are missing. The inferno has consumed 6,713 structures to date, and more than 15,000 remain at risk, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

In the southern end of the state, the Woolsey Fire had burned 91,572 acres as of Monday morning and had destroyed an estimated 370 structures, killing at least 2 people. It has destroyed multiple celebrity homes and a historic movie site recently used by the HBO series “Westworld.” The entire community of Malibu has been evacuated.


The ferocity of wildfires in recent years is making them seemingly impossible to fight, even with emergency crews pulling out every possible stop. At the same time, environmentalists have warned that some fires are a part of the natural order of things and help maintain ecological balance.

Overzealous extinguishing of smaller, non-threatening fires is making the problem worse, leading to forest buildup and a glut of dead, combustible matter, increasing wildfire intensity.

While that may be so, the protection of life and property is paramount. So how can we strike the right balance in our approach to minimizing wildfire damage?

A Fire Scientist’s Quest for Answers

Jack Cohen, a researcher from the U.S. Fire Service, began exploring this topic decades ago, beginning by studying the emergency dispatch recordings from 1980’s Panorama fire.

He identified patterns that led him to conclude that wood roofing was part of the problem. Embers floating ahead of the blaze accumulated in the crevices around dry wood shingles and drifted into attic vents, setting fire to houses from above — even though the fire itself was half a mile away on the other side of a ridge.

Jack Cohen explains actions property owners can take to help structures survive the impacts of flames and embers.

Cohen also noticed that photos of the devastation from the Panorama fire and other major fires showed healthy trees surrounding the remains of burnt houses — compelling proof that properties were being destroyed even in areas not directly touched by the fire. Embers were the culprit.

Over the next several years, Cohen conducted extensive research into the behavior of fire and the various ways that a house could catch fire, including how close the flames of a wildfire had to be for a house to ignite simply from the radiant heat.

He developed guidelines for designing and landscaping, starting with a buffer called it the “Home Ignition Zone.” Cohen’s premise is that regardless of the size or intensity of the fire, the defining factor in whether a building burns is based on the ignition resistance level of the property within a 100-foot radius of the structure.

Shifting Focus to Ignition Risk

Even in the face of extreme wildfire behavior, houses properly buffered have a chance to survive, Cohen concluded. The need to fight fires would decrease dramatically if buildings near fire-prone areas are designed to withstand them. In fact, there would be no need to fight a fire if the only goal was to save houses — taking a significant number of forest fires out of the firefighting equation.

Here are six of Cohen’s critical recommendations:

  1. Replace flammable wood roofs
  2. Between 100 feet and 30 feet from the house, space trees so that the fire can’t jump between them and is forced to the ground
  3. Between 30 and 5 feet, landscape and design so the groundfire loses steam, by removing fuels like tall grasses and wood piles
  4. Within 5 feet of the house, use design elements that stop fire, like rock beds and well-irrigated grass
  5. Make sure the garage door has a tight seal with the concrete
  6. Remove highly flammable trees, such as decorative juniper trees

Few were interested in changing the status quo back in 1999 when Cohen first presented his findings to the public. But his ideas are gaining traction now and are more relevant than ever.


Slowly, more emphasis is being placed on strategies like creating “defensible space” by clearing the property of flammable materials. Vegetation management was given high priority in the language of California’s SB-901, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 21.

But much more could be done to make high-risk areas fire resilient.

To learn more about Cohen’s research and recommendations, and how wildfire strategy has evolved over the past few decades, check out the 99% Invisible podcast “Built to Burn,” aired only a week into this summer’s Carr Fire, which killed ‎three firefighters and five civilians, and burned ‎229,651 acres. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at

Risk Scenario

A Recall Nightmare: Food Product Contamination Kills Three Unborn Children

A failure to purchase product contamination insurance results in a crushing blow, not just in dollars but in lives.
By: | October 15, 2018 • 9 min read
Risk Scenarios are created by Risk & Insurance editors along with leading industry partners. The hypothetical, yet realistic stories, showcase emerging risks that can result in significant losses if not properly addressed.

Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.


Reilly Sheehan, the Bethlehem, Pa., plant manager for Shamrock Foods, looks up in annoyance when he hears a tap on his office window.

Reilly has nothing against him, but seeing the face of his assistant plant operator Peter Soto right then is just a case of bad timing.

Sheehan, whose company manufactures ice cream treats for convenience stores and ice cream trucks, just got through digesting an email from his CFO, pushing for more cost cutting, when Soto knocked.

Sheehan gestures impatiently, and Soto steps in with a degree of caution.

“What?” Sheehan says.

“I’m not sure how much of an issue this will be, but I just got some safety reports back and we got a positive swipe for Listeria in one of the Market Streetside refrigeration units.”



Sheehan gestures again, and Soto shuts the office door.

“How much of a positive?” Sheehan says more quietly.

Soto shrugs.

“I mean it’s not a big hit and that’s the only place we saw it, so, hard to know what to make of it.”

Sheehan looks out to the production floor, more as a way to focus his thoughts than for any other reason.

Sheehan is jammed. It’s April, the time of year when Shamrock begins to ramp up production for the summer season. Shamrock, which operates three plants in the Middle Atlantic, is holding its own at around $240 million in annual sales.

But the pressure is building on Sheehan. In previous cost-cutting measures, Shamrock cut risk management and safety staff.

Now there is this email from the CFO and a possible safety issue. Not much time to think; too much going on.

Sheehan takes just another moment to deliberate: It’s not a heavy hit, and Shamrock hasn’t had a product recall in more than 15 years.

“Okay, thanks for letting me know,” Sheehan says to Soto.

“Do another swipe next week and tell me what you pick up. I bet you twenty bucks there’s nothing in the product. That swipe was nowhere near the production line.”

Soto departs, closing the office door gingerly.

Then Sheehan lingers over his keyboard. He waits. So much pressure; what to do?

“Very well then,” he says to himself, and gets to work crafting an email.

His subject line to the chief risk officer and the company vice president: “Possible safety issue: Positive test for Listeria in one of the refrigeration units.”

That night, Sheehan can’t sleep. Part of Shamrock’s cost-cutting meant that Sheehan has responsibility for environmental, health and safety in addition to his operations responsibilities.

Every possible thing that could bring harmful bacteria into the plant runs through his mind.

Trucks carrying raw eggs, milk and sugar into the plant. The hoses used to shoot the main ingredients into Shamrock’s metal storage vats. On and on it goes…

In his mind’s eye, Sheehan can picture the inside of a refrigeration unit. Ice cream is chilled, never really frozen. He can almost feel the dank chill. Salmonella and Listeria love that kind of environment.

Sheehan tosses and turns. Then another thought occurs to him. He recalls a conversation, just one question at a meeting really, when one of the departed risk management staff brought up the issue of contaminated product insurance.

Sheehan’s memory is hazy, stress shortened, but he can’t remember it being mentioned again. He pushes his memory again, but nothing.

“I don’t need this,” he says to himself through clenched teeth. He punches up his pillow in an effort to find a path to sleep.


“Toot toot, tuuuuurrrrreeeeeeeeettt!”

The whistles of the three lifeguards at the Bradford Community Pool in Allentown, Pa., go off in unison, two staccato notes, then a dip in pitch, then ratcheting back up together.

For Cheryl Brick, 34, the mother of two and six-months pregnant with a third, that signal for the kids to clear the pool for the adult swim is just part of a typical summer day. Right on cue, her son Henry, 8, and his sister Siobhan, 5, come running back to where she’s set up the family pool camp.

Henry, wet and shivering and reaching for a towel, eyes that big bag.

“Mom, can I?”

And Cheryl knows exactly where he’s going.

“Yes. But this time, can you please bring your mother a mint-chip ice cream bar along with whatever you get for you and Siobhan?”

Henry grabs the money, drops his towel and tears off; Siobhan drops hers just as quickly, not wanting to be left behind.


“Wait for me!” Siobhan yells as Henry sprints for the ice cream truck parked just outside of the pool entrance.

It’s the dead of night, 3 am, two weeks later when Cheryl, slumbering deeply beside her husband Danny, is pulled from her rest by the sound of Siobhan crying in their bedroom doorway.

“Mom, dad!” says Henry, who is standing, pale and stricken, in the hallway behind Siobhan.

“What?” says Danny, sitting up in bed, but Cheryl’s pregnancy sharpened sense of smell knows the answer.

Siobhan, wailing and shivering, has soiled her pajamas, the victim of a severe case of diarrhea.

“I just barfed is what,” says Henry, who has to turn and run right back to the bathroom.

Cheryl steps out of bed to help Siobhan, but the room spins as she does so.

“Oh God,” she says, feeling the impact of her own attack of nausea.

A quick, grim cleanup and the entire family is off to a walk-up urgent care center.

A bolt of fear runs through Cheryl as the nurse gives her the horrible news.

“Listeriosis,” says the nurse. Sickening for children and adults but potentially fatal for the weak, especially the unborn.

And very sadly, Cheryl loses her third child. Two other mothers in the Middle Atlantic suffer the same fate and dozens more are sickened.

Product recall notices from state regulators and the FDA go out immediately.

Ice cream bars and sandwiches disappear from store coolers and vending machines on corporate campuses. The tinkly sound of “Pop Goes the Weasel” emanating from mobile ice cream vendor trucks falls silent.

Notices of intent to sue hit every link in the supply chain, from dairy cooperatives in New York State to the corporate offices of grocery store chains in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The three major contract manufacturers that make ice cream bars distributed in the eight states where residents were sickened are shut down, pending a further investigation.

FDA inspectors eventually tie the outbreak to Shamrock.

Evidence exists that a good faith effort was underway internally to determine if any of Shamrock’s products were contaminated. Shamrock had still not produced a positive hit on any of its products when the summer tragedy struck. They just weren’t looking in the right place.


Banking on rock-solid relationships with its carrier and brokers, Shamrock, through its attorneys, is able to salvage indemnification on its general liability policy that affords it $20 million to defray the business losses of its retail customers.


But that one comment from a risk manager that went unheeded many months ago comes back to haunt the company.

All three of Shamrock’s plants were shuttered from August 2017 until March 2018, until the source of the contamination could be run down and the federal and state inspectors were assured the company put into place the necessary protocols to avoid a repeat of the disaster that killed 3 unborn children and sickened dozens more.

Shamrock carried no contaminated product coverage, which is known as product recall coverage outside of the food business. The production shutdown of all three of its plants cost Shamrock $120 million. As a result of the shutdown, Shamrock also lost customers.

The $20 million payout from Shamrock’s general liability policy is welcome and was well-earned by a good history with its carrier and brokers. Without the backstop of contaminated products insurance, though, Shamrock blew a hole in its bottom line that forces the company to change, perhaps forever, the way it does business.

Management has a gun to its head. Two of Shamrock’s plants, including Bethlehem, are permanently shuttered, as the company shrinks in an effort to stave off bankruptcy.

Reilly Sheehan is among those terminated. In the end, he was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Burdened by the guilt, rational or not, over the fatalities and the horrendous damage to Shamrock’s business. Reilly Sheehan is a broken man. Leaning on the compassion of a cousin, he takes a job as a maintenance worker at the Bethlehem sewage treatment plant.

“Maybe I can keep this place clean,” he mutters to himself one night, as he swabs a sewage overflow with a mop in the early morning hours of a dark, cold February.


Risk & Insurance® partnered with Swiss Re Corporate Solutions to produce this scenario. Below are their recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance.®.

Shamrock Food’s story is not an isolated incident. Contaminations happen, and when they do they can cause a domino effect of loss and disruption for vendors and suppliers. Without Product Recall Insurance, Shamrock sustained large monetary losses, lost customers and ultimately two of their facilities. While the company’s liability coverage helped with the business losses of their retail customers, the lack of Product Recall and Contamination Insurance left them exposed to a litany of risks.

Risk Managers in the Food & Beverage industry should consider Product Recall Insurance because it can protect your company from:

  • Accidental contamination
  • Malicious product tampering
  • Government recall
  • Product extortion
  • Adverse publicity
  • Intentionally impaired ingredients
  • Product refusal
  • First and third party recall costs

Ultimately, choosing the right partner is key. Finding an insurer who offers comprehensive coverage and claims support will be of the utmost importance should disaster strike. Not only is cover needed to provide balance sheet protection for lost revenues, extra expense, cleaning, disposal, storage and replacing the contaminated products, but coverage should go even further in providing the following additional services:

  • Pre-incident risk mitigation advocacy
  • Incident investigation
  • Brand rehabilitation
  • Third party advisory services

A strong contamination insurance program can fill gaps between other P&C lines, but more importantly it can provide needed risk management resources when companies need them most: during a crisis.

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at