A rapid data response to wildfires

ICEYE’s Penelope Kourkouli and Stephen Lathrope address how satellite technology offers a potential game-changing capability for wildfire loss assessment.

2023 has witnessed a surge in major wildfires due to warmer, drier conditions intensifying events globally. Even regions previously considered too wet or humid are now increasingly exposed to wildfire events.

In recent months, Canada has been tackling one of its worst wildfire seasons to date, while the island of Maui in Hawaii has been devastated by fires. Greece, Italy and Spain have also experienced multiple major events.

As air temperatures continue to rise and urbanisation near increasingly dry wildland-urban interface zones expands, so the frequency, spread and severity of wildfires will grow, making the question of insurability an increasingly pertinent one for the insurance sector.

Data limitations hampering response

The complexity inherent in wildfire events makes them incredibly challenging for insurers to monitor and manage effectively. Wind and fuel conditions can quickly alter the size and direction of an event, and distance from built-up areas can change very quickly, dramatically altering an event’s exposure potential.

While a few wildfire data sources exist, their effectiveness is hampered by the time taken to access impacted areas, the limited availability of information as an event develops, the effects of smoke on aerial imagery and the need to pull insights from multiple different sources.

This data shortfall stalls multiple critical phases of the insurance process, including speed of assessment, policyholder communications, proof-of-loss capabilities and claims processing.

How SAR satellite technology is piercing the smoke

The development and deployment of miniaturised synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology marks a step-change in how companies can monitor wildfire events. SAR imagery can pierce smoke and provide high-resolution ground imagery as an event evolves. Further, being miniaturised, it can be integrated into satellites much more efficiently and cost-effectively.

An SAR satellite constellation can target wildfire events anywhere within hours, acquiring radar images of the same location every 24 hours, which enables an unprecedented level of change detection as the fire evolves. Monitoring criteria can then be applied to trigger high-resolution data capture when a wildfire reaches a specific distance from a built-up or highly populated area.

Applying algorithms to the SAR imagery and location intelligence data enables an accurate assessment of the number of individual buildings destroyed and undamaged in an impacted area within hours. This means insurers can conduct rapid loss assessments, communicate immediately with impacted policyholders, target resources effectively and accurately allocate funds for property loss and accommodation costs.

While only recently launched, ICEYE’s Wildfire Insights solution has been actively used by government agencies and insurers to gain rapid situational awareness during recent events, including the wildfire in Maui.

Fanning the potential

Offering near real-time hazard data can greatly enhance the insurance sector's response capabilities. While the application of SAR technology to wildfires is in its relative infancy, the scope of uses will likely evolve quickly.

Insurers will be able to monitor wildfire activity globally, mapping portfolio data to hazard information almost instantaneously as particular fires develop. ICEYE is also exploring ways to extend the impact data beyond properties to include motor and agricultural losses.

Further, the rapid access to accurate, verifiable, ground-level data will also inevitably act as a catalyst for the development of wildfire-related parametric structures as the public and private sectors explore innovative and responsive solutions to the challenges of insurability.

Penelope Kourkouli is Wildfire Insights product manager and Stephen Lathrope is global head of insurance at ICEYE