Between 2021-2022, wildfires accounted for over $11.2 billion in damage across the United States. Areas in the west, like California, Nevada and Arizona, with long stretches of arid climate and little rain, are especially susceptible to wildfires. They can be devastating, growing quickly, taking out homes and entire communities and racking up billions of dollars in damage. Urban sprawl and climate change are two factors that increase the likelihood and frequency of wildfires across the country. Having the right homeowners insurance in place can be key to helping consumers offset the cost of wildfire damage. Here, we examine the most recent statistics and data for U.S. wildfires, including how to file a claim if your home is damaged by smoke or fire.
- 4.5 million U.S. homes are at high or extreme risk from wildfires, with over 2 million in California alone. (Verisk)
- There were 58,985 wildfires in 2021, which affected 7.1 million 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 2021 in U.S. wildfires and a 223% increase since 1983. (NIFC)
- Humans cause as many as 90% of wildfires, with the remaining 10% caused by lava and lightning. (U.S. Department of Interior)
- The main causes of wildfire by humans is leaving campfires unattended, debris burns, equipment usage and malfunction, discarded cigarettes and arson. (U.S. Department of Interior)
- Five of the top 20 largest California wildfires occurred in 2020, with four taking place in 2021. (CAL FIRE)
- 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. (Center for Disaster Philanthropy – CDP)
- In 2021, there were 59,000 wildfires and 7.1 million acres burned across the country. (Congressional Research Service)
- Wildfires, drought, and heatwaves accounted for $20.36 billion in economic losses and $8.69 billion in insurance losses in 2021. (Insurance Information Institute – Triple-I)
- To date in 2022, there have been 50,951 wildfires with over 6.7 million acres burned. (NFIC)
- The average claim paid out by State Farm for a wildfire as of March, 2022 was $224,000, which shows an 8% increase over the prior year. California, Colorado and Oregon make up 95% of paid claims. (State Farm)
The worst wildfires in U.S. history
The Insurance Information Institute (Triple-I) rated the costliest wildland fires in the United States. Based on its data, the top ten worst wildfires, all in California, each caused several billions of dollars in insured losses.
- Camp Fire, 2018: Total damages from the costliest U.S. wildfire of all time are estimated at $10 billion, roughly $10.75 billion in 2021 value. The fire burned 18,804 structures and 153,335 acres of woodland.
- Tubbs Fire, 2017: The Tubbs fire incurred $8.7 billion in estimated insured losses or about $9.56 billion by 2021 value. This electrical fire caused 36,807 acres of woodland to burn and 5,636 structures.
- Woolsey Fire, 2018: The Woolsey Fire cost $4.2 billion in estimated losses, or $4.56 million with inflation. There were 1,643 structures and 96,949 acres of woodland destroyed.
- Oakland Fire (Tunnel), 1991: This wildfire in the early 90s caused estimated losses of $1.7 billion, or $3.35 billion with 2021 inflation value. There were 2,900 structures and 1,600 acres of woodland damaged.
- Atlas Fire, 2017: The Atlas Fire cost about $3 billion in damages, or what would be $3.3 billion in 2021. The fire caused damage to 903 structures and burned 51,624 acres of woodland.
- Glass Fire, 2020: The Glass Fire cost about $2.95 billion when it occurred, which is equivalent to $3.07 billion in 2021 dollars. Although there were no deaths, the Glass Fire damaged or destroyed 1,520 structures and burned 67,484 acres of woodland.
- CZU Lightning Complex Fire, 2020: The CZU Lightning Complex Fire cost $2.5 billion in estimated insured losses, equal to $2.6 billion in 2021 value. This lightning fire damaged 1,490 structures and burned 86,509 woodland acres.
- Thomas Fire, 2017: The Thomas Fire caused $2.25 billion in estimated insurance losses, which equals $2.47 billion in 2021 dollars. This fire, caused by power lines, damaged 281,893 woodland acres and 1,063 structures.
- LNU Lightning Complex Fire, 2020: The LNU fire is estimated to have caused $2.25 billion in insured losses, equivalent to $2.34 billion in 2021. This fire claimed 1,491 structures and 363,220 acres of woodland.
- Witch Fire, 2007: The Witch Fire accounts for $1.6 billion in insured losses, or $2.08 billion in 2021 dollars. The powerline fire destroyed 1,650 structures and 197,990 acres of woodland.
Wildfires in recent years
The National Interagency Fire Center offers year-over-year data for U.S. wildfires, although recordkeeping did not begin until 1983.
*North Carolina state lands are exempt from 2004 fires and acreage.
Fires need fuel, heat and oxygen to burn. Wildfire suppression means to manage, modify, prevent or extinguish a wildfire. Several strategies are used to suppress wildfires, including creating control lines using prescribed burns or natural barriers like rocky slopes or large barren soil areas and removing the fire’s fuel source, such as using hand tools or heavy equipment to remove quick-burning vegetation. National Guard members can also be deployed to support efforts, providing air assistance for mapping the fire, dropping flame retardant and water, as well as offering assistance on the ground as firefighters and EMTs. The area’s landscape, plus fire and weather conditions, determine the method used.
The National Interagency Fire Center offers data on annual suppression costs for U.S. wildfires. The five-year average costs the Forest Service over $2 billion, while the cost to DOI agencies was more than $525 million. The total ten-year average is less, at around $1.9 billion, suggesting that the cost of suppressing these fires is going up over time. At nearly $4.4 billion, 2021 was the most expensive year for total fire suppression costs since record-keeping began in 1985, when the total annual costs topped out at just under $240 million.
Annual wildfire suppression costs
|Year||Forest Service||DOI Agencies||Total|
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 2021.
California has made a name for itself with wildfires. CAL FIRE and its partner agencies offer several statistics regarding the 2021 U.S. wildfire season. In 2021, there were almost 2.6 million acres burned, 3,629 structures damaged or destroyed and three fatalities from wildfires. So far in 2022, 357,278 acres are estimated to have burned, with 101 structures damaged and 764 destroyed, and nine civilian fatalities.
The 2021 Dixie fire burned from July 13 to October 25 and encompassed five counties, making it the largest single wildfire and the second-largest in the history of California. It damaged 95 structures, destroyed 1,329 and caused one firefighter fatality. There were 725 personnel involved in containing the Dixie Fire.
As of the publishing of this article, two more large wildfires are burning in California, the Mosquito fire and the Fairview fire. Neither have been 100% extinguished as of now, but the Fairview fire is 98% contained and not expected to spread further.
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 2022 as the second-highest state. While Texas had less than 717,000 at-risk properties, California had more than two million.
- California: 2,040,600
- 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.
|Rank||State||Number of at-risk properties|
Fire damage restoration
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.
Many home insurance policies cover damage from the wildfire as well as smoke damage. If you receive smoke damage, you can file a claim with your insurance company. Most carriers offer several ways to file a claim, including online, over the phone and through a mobile app. Once the claim is filed, an insurance adjuster will be assigned to your case, who will provide you with next steps. Be aware that the claims process can move slowly when there are a large number of structures and vehicles affected.
You may wish to call a remediation company, who can start the process of repairing your home after smoke or fire damage while you wait for next steps from the insurance company. The company can work with you to save damaged items. You should consider taking photos and video of the damage and retain receipts for any out-of-pocket costs that could be covered as part of your homeowners claim.