US Wildfire Statistics - How bad are wildfires in America?
Whether it’s a Spanish man running for his life with clothes ablaze, unprecedented wildfires in Alaska, or a ‘heat apocalypse’ that has already killed hundreds and continues to wreak havoc across southern Europe, wildfires have been all over the news in recent weeks. Whether referred to as wildfires, forest fires, bushfires, or wildland fires, we're hearing more about them.
The climate crisis is greatly exacerbating the prevalence and frequency of wildfires, with dire consequences for the planet, wildlife, people and livelihoods.
But what do the numbers say? Right on cue, our friends at Bankrate have collated a set of recent wildfire statistics for the United States, bringing together various authoritative sources. In this blog, we will draw your attention to some of these wildfire facts and statistics.
US Wildfire Statistics at a Glance
The figures couldn’t be more alarming:
To date in 2023, there have been 48,510 wildfires with over 2,545,228 acres burned.
4.5 million U.S. homes are at high or extreme risk from wildfires. (Verisk)
There were 66,255 wildfires in 2022, and nearly 60,000 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. (National Interagency Fire Center)
There has been a 17% increase in US wildfires from 2019 to 2021 and a staggering 223% increase since 1983. (NIFC)
Humans cause as many as 90% of wildfires. (US Department of Interior)
Five of California’s 20 biggest ever wildfires occurred in 2020. (iii)
2020's US wildfires 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 Financial Cost of Wildfires
The billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted and loss of carbon sinks for subsequent CO2 sequestration as a result of wildfires is catastrophic. Furthermore, wildfires destroy vast swathes of land and habitats and with them, highly complex and bountiful ecosystems.
There are also dire financial implications from wildfires. The Insurance Information Institute has rated the costliest wildfires in the US. The figures are eye-watering:
Camp Fire, 2018: Total damages from the costliest U.S. wildfire of all time are estimated at $10 billion, roughly $10.38 billion in 2021 dollars.
Tubbs Fire, 2017: The Tubbs fire incurred $8.7 billion in estimated insured losses or about $9.23 billion by 2021 value.
Woolsey Fire, 2018: The Woolsey Fire cost $4.2 billion in estimated losses, or $4.36 billion after inflation.
Oakland Fire (Tunnel), 1991: This wildfire in the early 90s caused estimated losses of $1.7 billion, or $3.24 billion with inflation taken into account.
Atlas Fire, 2017: The Atlas Fire cost about $3 billion in damages, or what would be $3.18 billion in 2021.
Glass Fire, 2020: The Glass Fire cost about $2.95 billion when it occurred, equivalent to $3.07 billion by 2021.
CZU Lightning Complex Fire, 2020: The CZU Lightning Complex Fire cost $2.5 billion in estimated insured losses, or around $2.6 billion after inflation.
Thomas Fire, 2017: $2.43 billion in damages in 2021 dollars.
LNU Lightning Complex fires, 2020: A large complex of wildfires with damages totalling $2.34 billion adjusted for inflation.
Witch Creek Fire, $2.08 billion of estimated losses in 2021 dollars.
The Human Role in Wildfires
One alarming fact that cannot be ignored is that human activity is responsible for as many as 85% of wildfires. Whether it be accidental ignition or deliberate acts of arson, our actions have dire consequences for the environment and all living beings. It is essential to recognize our role in exacerbating the wildfire crisis and take steps to prevent and mitigate these disasters.
Wildfire Statistics by Year
Looking at recent data on the number of wildfires per year in the US, we can see an upward trend in the number of fires per year, going from 58,100 wildfires in 2018 to 69,000 wildfires in 2022. In terms of millions of acres burned, a trend is harder to discern, though there is scientific consensus that wildfires are getting worse across the board.
A look at a longer time period shows a small decline in the number of fires per year in the US, but an upward trend in millions of acres burned per year.
Data for both the recent and historical wildfire graph comes from the National Interagency Fire Center.
Wildfires have become increasingly prevalent and destructive in recent years, fueled by the worsening climate crisis. The numbers speak for themselves, painting a bleak picture of the damage caused by these infernos.
Data for this wildfire frequency chart comes from NIFC. North Carolina state lands are exempt from 2004 fires and acreage.
Despite annual fluctuations, the trend line is impossible to ignore. The increased frequency of wildfires poses an existential risk to our planet and its species and unless something can be done to address the damage wrought, the consequences are unimaginable.
Here's a look at wildfire statistics by state for the worst affected US states in 2022. We will focus on human-caused fires only:
Acres Burned in 2022 (Human fires)
Data from the NIFC.
Riskiest States for Wildfires
In 2022, California emerged as the most vulnerable state to forest fires in the United States, significantly surpassing all others in terms of at-risk properties. With over two million properties facing the threat, California's risk was nearly triple that of the second-highest state, Texas, which had less than 717,000 properties at risk.
Based on the number of properties at extreme risk from wildfires, the top five riskiest states were:
California Wildfire Statistics
California has borne the brunt of wildland fires in the US - both historically and recently - with 9,279 fires, 4,197,628 total acres burned, 10,488 structures destroyed, and at least 31 lives lost in 2020 alone (iii). Its unique combination of climate and geography makes it a hotspot for devastating wildfires.
The state has a long history of facing these infernos, and recent years have been particularly brutal. In 2020, California witnessed a staggering number of fires—9,279 in total. These fires devoured over 4 million acres of land, destroyed more than 10,000 structures, and claimed numerous lives.
The Golden State's struggle with wildfires is a powerful reminder of the urgent need to invest in prevention, mitigation, and community resilience efforts.
Dryad Reseller Partner CAL FIRE is the primary authority on California wildfire statistics. Their data shows that in 2021, wildfires ravaged nearly 2.6 million acres, leading to the destruction or damage of 3,629 structures and tragically claiming three lives.
2022 saw a noticeable decline in the devastation caused by California wildfires, with 362,455 acres burned, 104 structures damaged, 772 structures destroyed, and regrettably, nine civilian fatalities.
Preventing Megafires - Detection Time is Critical
A common problem with wildfire mitigation more generally is that the majority of detection methods at the moment rely on ocular-based technology such as CCTV systems and satellites. It can often be hours before these systems successfully detect a fire and alert the authorities, which is often far too late.
When it comes to wildfires, time is of the essence. Dryad's Silvanet provides ultra-early fire detection, sensing smoke, hydrogen and other gases emitted by pyrolysis in the early stages of a wildfire, giving fire fighters valuable time and a chance to extinguish the fire before it spreads out of control.
Dryad provides ultra-early detection of wildfires using solar-powered gas sensors in a large-scale IoT mesh network placed within a forest. With Dryad’s game-changing detection capabilities, wildfires can be detected far earlier and therefore put out far easier, stopping them in their tracks.
This will prevent the emission of thousands of tonnes of CO2 and save our precious and vital rainforests. By 2030, Dryad aims to save 3.9m hectares of forest from burning and prevent 1.7 billion tons of CO2 emissions.
Early Detection of Wildfires - What the Experts Say
Biddle at al. found that reducing response time by one hour decreases the occurrence of large fires by 16%.
Extending response time by an hour results in a 29% rise in the likelihood that a fire will burn over 20 hectares, according to Plucinski.
Arienti et al. found that delaying the average response time from 15 minutes to 65 minutes raises the chance of a "response failure" by 25%.