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
- The worst wildfires in U.S. history
- U.S. wildfire statistics
- Wildfire statistics by state
- Wildfires and insurance
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.
- 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.
- Tubbs Fire, 2017: The Tubbs fire incurred $8.7 billion in estimated insured losses or about $9.23 billion by 2020 value.
- Woolsey Fire, 2018: The Woolsey Fire cost $4.2 billion in estimated losses, or $4.36 million with inflation.
- 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.
- Atlas Fire, 2017: The Atlas Fire cost about $3 billion in damages, or what would be $3.18 billion in 2020.
- Glass Fire, 2020: The Glass Fire cost about $2.9 billion when it occurred.
- 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|
*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|
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|
|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|
|Northern Mariana Islands||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|U.S. Minor Outlying Islands||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Virgin Islands of the U.S.||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
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|
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.