U.S. wildfire statistics

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2020 was a record year for wildfires, as climate change wreaked havoc on America’s forests and communities and reminded us of the consequences of wildfires. Especially common in California, wildfires do the most damage in areas with high temperatures and dry air. Dry vegetation acts as a natural accelerant, feeding and fueling the fire until it spirals uncontrollably. Wildfires can rapidly devour entire homes and communities and cause billions of dollars in damage.

As scientists continue to warn of the effects of climate change, it’s more important than ever that homeowners protect themselves with the right homeowners insurance for wildfires, especially if living in a high-risk area.

We examined the latest statistics and data for U.S. wildfires.

In this article:

Important wildfire statistics

  • 4.5 million U.S. homes are at high or extreme risk from wildfires. (Verisk)
  • There were 58,950 wildfires in 2020, which affected 10,122,336 acres, compared to just 18,229 wildfires and 1,323,666 acres lost in 1983 when official record-keeping began. (NIFC)
  • There was a 17% increase from 2019 to 2020 in U.S. wildfires and a 223% increase since 1983. (NIFC)
  • Humans cause as many as 90% of wildfires. (U.S. Department of Interior)
  • Five of California’s top 20 biggest wildfires occurred in 2020. (iii)
  • 2020 wildfires in the U.S. caused $16.5 billion in damages, making it the third-costliest year on record; 2017 being the highest at $24 billion and 2018 a close second at $22 billion. These figures do not account for indirect damages, which experts estimate cost around $150 billion for the record-setting 2018 wildfire season. (Yale Climate Connections)
  • 2020 wildfires cost California 4.2 million acres of land, 10,500 structures and the lives of at least 31 people. (iii)

The worst wildfires in U.S. history

The Insurance Information Institute rated the costliest wildland fires in the United States. Based on its data, the top seven worst wildfires, all in California, each caused several billions of dollars in insured losses.

  1. Camp Fire, 2018: Total damages from the costliest U.S. wildfire of all time are estimated at $10 billion, roughly $10.38 billion in 2020 value.
  2. Tubbs Fire, 2017: The Tubbs fire incurred $8.7 billion in estimated insured losses or about $9.23 billion by 2020 value.
  3. Woolsey Fire, 2018: The Woolsey Fire cost $4.2 billion in estimated losses, or $4.36 million with inflation.
  4. Oakland Fire (Tunnel), 1991: This wildfire in the early 90s caused estimated losses of $1.7 billion, or $3.24 billion with 2020 inflation value.
  5. Atlas Fire, 2017: The Atlas Fire cost about $3 billion in damages, or what would be $3.18 billion in 2020.
  6. Glass Fire, 2020: The Glass Fire cost about $2.9 billion when it occurred.
  7. CZU Lightning Complex Fire, 2020: The CZU Lightning Complex Fire cost $2.43 billion in estimated insured losses.

U.S. wildfire statistics

Interestingly, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), More wildfires occur in the East (including the central states), but the wildfires in the West are larger and burn more acreage (including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming).”

For example, in terms of the overall wildfire toll, California was one of the worst-affected states in 2020, with 9,279 fires, 4,197,628 total acres burned, 10,488 structures destroyed, and at least 31 lives lost. (iii)

Wildfires in recent years

Wildfires continue to damage properties and burn through millions of acres each year, with 2020 seeing more wildfires and acres burned than ever before, according to the NIFC:

  • 2020: 58,950 fires affecting 10,122,336 acres
  • 2019: 50,477 fires affecting 4,664,364 acres
  • 2018: 58,083 fires affecting 8,767,492 acres

Number of acres burned in wildfires

The National Interagency Fire Center offers year-over-year data for U.S. wildfires, although recordkeeping did not begin until 1983.

U.S. Wildfires by Year

Year Number of Fires Number of Acres Affected
2020 58,950 10,122,336
2019 50,477 4,664,364
2018 58,083 8,767,492
2017 71,499 10,026,086
2016 67,743 5,509,995
2015 68,151 10,125,149
2014 63,312 3,595,613
2013 47,579 4,319,546
2012 67,774 9,326,238
2011 74,126 8,711,367
2010 71,971 3,422,724
2009 78,792 5,921,786
2008 78,979 5,292,468
2007 85,705 9,328,045
2006 96,385 9,873,745
2005 66,753 8,689,389
2004 65,461 8,097,880*
2003 63,629 3,960,842
2002 73,457 7,184,712
2001 84,079 3,570,911
2000 92,250 7,393,493
1999 92,487 5,626,093
1998 81,043 1,329,704
1997 66,196 2,856,959
1996 96,363 6,065,998
1995 82,234 1,840,546
1994 79,107 4,073,579
1993 58,810 1,797,574
1992 87,394 2,069,929
1991 75,754 2,953,578
1990 66,481 4,621,621
1989 48,949 1,827,310
1988 72,750 5,009,290
1987 71,300 2,447,296
1986 85,907 2,719,162
1985 82,591 2,896,147
1984 20,493 1,148,409
1983 18,229 1,323,666

*North Carolina state lands are exempt from 2004 fires and acreage.

How much does the US spend to suppress wildfires?

The National Interagency Fire Center offers data on annual suppression costs for U.S. wildfires. The five-year average costs the Forest Service almost $2 billion, while the cost to DOI agencies was more than $453 million. The total ten-year average is less, at $1.91 billion, suggesting that the cost of suppressing these fires is going up over time. At $2.274 billion, 2020 was the most expensive year since 2018, when the total costs topped $3.143 billion.

Year-Over-Year Annual Wildfire Suppression Costs

Year Forest Service DOI Agencies Total
2020 $1,764,000,000 $510,000,000 $2,274,000,000
2019 $1,150,000,000 $440,000,000 $1,590,000,000
2018 $2,615,256,000 $528,000,000 $3,143,256,000
2017 $2,410,165,000 $508,000,000 $2,918,165,000
2016 $1,603,806,000 $371,739,000 $1,975,545,000
2015 $1,713,000,000 $417,543,000 $2,130,543,000

Wildfire statistics by state

To best understand how wildfires affect the different regions of the U.S., this NIFC table shows the number of wildfires by cause and type in 2019.

2019 U.S. Wildfires by State

State Human fires Lightning fires Total fires Total acres
Number of fires Number of acres Number of fires Number of acres
Alabama 1,106 22,158 1 1 1,107 22,158
Alaska 349 44,061 371 2,454,098 720 2,498,159
American Samoa N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Arizona 1,463 178,815 406 206,127 1,869 384,942
Arkansas 660 8,602 0 0 660 8,602
California 7,697 216,155 497 42,993 8,194 259,148
Colorado 353 13,522 504 26,870 857 40,392
Connecticut 88 72 0 0 88 72
Delaware N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
District of Columbia N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Federated States of Micronesia N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Florida 1,660 33,898 461 88,602 2,121 122,500
Georgia 3,154 12,133 4 274 3,158 12,407
Guam N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Hawaii 155 10,710 0 0 155 10,710
Idaho 479 83,150 481 200,876 960 284,026
Illinois 2 41 0 0 2 41
Indiana 38 523 0 0 38 523
Iowa 153 2,020 0 0 153 2,020
Kansas 19 21,167 0 0 19 21,167
Kentucky 754 11,689 1 25 755 11,714
Louisiana 358 2,689 3 370 361 3,059
Maine 344 135 11 7 355 142
Marshall Islands N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Maryland 135 1,472 5 26 140 1,498
Massachusetts 289 248 0 0 289 248
Michigan 250 1,098 11 30 361 1,128
Minnesota 1,014 5,847 7 15 1,021 5,862
Mississippi 959 5,473 0 0 959 5,473
Missouri 67 5.091 0 0 67 5,091
Montana 982 25,752 492 39,083 1,474 64,835
Nebraska 11 9,446 4 32 15 9,478
Nevada 318 18,801 244 63,481 562 82,282
New Hampshire 16 25 0 0 16 25
New Jersey 727 11,346 0 0 727 11,346
New Mexico 452 23,269 407 56,618 859 79,887
New York 76 220 3 1 79 221
North Carolina 3,784 13,949 88 599 3,872 14,548
North Dakota 482 4,447 5 7 488 4,454
Northern Mariana Islands N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Ohio 498 1,038 0 0 498 1,038
Oklahoma 1,101 66,941 3 201 1,104 67,142
Oregon 1,192 22,172 1,101 57,560 2,293 79,732
Palau N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Pennsylvania 546 691 1 0 547 691
Puerto Rico 97 2,906 0 0 97 2,906
Rhode Island 45 33 0 0 45 33
South Carolina 976 5,726 16 213 992 5,939
South Dakota 282 2,027 64 234 346 2,261
Tennessee 564 5,393 7 85 571 5,478
Texas 6,575 163,118 317 52,375 6,892 215,493
U.S. Minor Outlying Islands N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Utah 690 25,748 335 66,632 1,025 92,380
Vermont 19 22 0 0 19 22
Virgin Islands of the U.S. N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Virginia 364 2,643 0 0 364 2,643
Washington 1,067 118,149 327 51,592 1,394 169,742
West Virginia 593 7,653 0 0 593 7,653
Wisconsin 710 1,198 0 0 710 1,198
Wyoming 297 3,845 189 38,012 486 41,857

California wildfire statistics

California has made a name for itself with wildfires. CAL FIRE and its partner agencies offer several statistics regarding the 2020 U.S. wildfire season. In 2020, there were 4,257,863 acres burned in California from a total of 9,917 incidents. From these wildfires, there were also 33 fatalities (slightly higher than the iii’s estimate). A total of 10,488 structures were also damaged or destroyed by California wildfires.

In just two of 2020’s biggest California fires, the Glass Fire and Zogg Fire, more than 123,800 acres were collectively burned. Some of California’s most popular and beloved areas, including Napa, Sonoma, Shasta, and Tehama counties, were affected. September’s El Dorado Fire affected many of California’s wealthiest communities in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

Riskiest states for wildfires

California is by far the most at-risk state for wildfires in the U.S., with nearly triple the number of properties at-risk in 2020 as the second-highest state. While Texas had less than 720,000 at-risk properties, California had more than two million.

  • California: 2,054,900
  • Texas: 717,800
  • Colorado: 373,900
  • Arizona: 242,200
  • Idaho: 175,000

These are the top at-risk states for wildfire in the U.S. based on the number of properties at extreme risk.

Most At-Risk States from Wildfire

Rank State Number of at-risk properties
1. California 2,054,900
2. Texas 717,800
3. Colorado 373,900
4. Arizona 242,200
5. Idaho 175,000
6. Washington 160,500
7. Oklahoma 153,400
8. Oregon 151,400
9. Montana 137,800
10. Utah 136,000

Wildfires and insurance

The average home insurance policy covers the structure of your home, as well as personal belongings and additional living expenses, should you be affected by a wildfire. Those with renters insurance, condo insurance, and manufactured or mobile home insurance should check their policies to ensure adequate coverage in case of a wildfire.

However, if you live in a high-risk area for wildfires, such as California, you could be denied coverage. In this case, the California FAIR plan is one option that offers basic coverage for high-risk customers who typically cannot find standard home insurance. After a record year of wildfires in 2018, it was estimated that 350,000 California home and business owners could not purchase adequate property and casualty insurance because of the increased risk that providers were facing. Significant issues were created for homeowners trying to satisfy mortgage requirements of home insurance.

The cost of wildfires

It is estimated that wildfire season costs insurance companies between $7 and $13 billion. Accuweather estimates that wildfire-related damages amounted to $400 billion in total losses. Though not as costly, the economic cost of California wildfires in 2017 and 2018 still cost up to $85 million.

A study of the 2018 Camp Fire reveals staggering facts and estimations:

  • Total 2019 claims from the Camp Fire: more than $12 billion
  • Total damage and economic losses: more than $400 billion
  • Total insured losses: estimated between $8.5 to $10.5 billion
  • Toxic debris removal: nearly $2 billion
  • Victim aid: $200 million

If you live in an area at risk for wildfires, it is probably a good idea to shop around to find the best home insurance policy available.

Written by
Lena Borrelli
Insurance Contributor
Lena Muhtadi Borrelli has several years of experience in writing for insurance domains such as allconnect, Healthline and Reviews.com. She previously worked for Morgan Stanley.