Facts + Statistics: Wildfires

Wildland fires

As many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by people, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. Some human-caused fires result from campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, downed power lines, negligently discarded cigarettes and intentional acts of arson. The remaining 10 percent are started by lightning or lava.

According to Verisk’s 2019 Wildfire Risk Analysis 4.5 million U.S. homes were identified at high or extreme risk of wildfire, with more than 2 million in California alone. 

Wildfires by year

2020: From January 1 to November 6, 2020 there were 48,858 wildfires compared with 45,244 wildfires in the same period in 2019, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. About 8.6 million acres were burned in the 2020 period, compared with 4.6 million acres in 2019. Six of the top 20 largest California wildfires fires occurred in 2020, according to CalFire’s list. Wildfires in California have burned a record 4.2 million acres, damaging or destroying 10,500 structures and killing 31 people.

In August a series of lightning strikes started hundreds of fires across Northern California. Dubbed the August Complex Fire, they are the largest fires in California’s history, together burning 1.03 million acres in six counties and continuing into November. Another fire, the SCU Lightning Complex Fire, located in five counties in northern California near San Francisco, is the third largest fire on record in the state, burning almost 400,000 acres. The LNU Lightning Complex Fire spanned five counties and was nearly as large. The North Complex Fire, encompassing three counties, burned 319,000 acres and was the 6th largest fire in the state’s history. The SQF Complex Fire was the 18th largest California fire, burning 171,000 acres.

On September 28 a state of emergency was declared in California in response to the wildfires that burned through Napa, Sonoma and Shasta Counties, where tens of thousands were forced to evacuate. In October, the Glass Fire in Napa County and Sonoma County burned about 67,500 acres and destroyed 1,555 structures. State authorities ordered 70,000 residents of Sonoma and Napa Counties to evacuate, including the entire city of Calistoga in Napa Valley. The Creek Fire in Fresno and Madera counties has burned almost 400,000 acres into November, destroying 850 structures.

In early October, 65 large fires were burning in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and five other states, consuming over 2 million acres. In Oregon thousands of residents evacuated their homes to escape the flames that scorched more than 230,000 acres. In California fires burned from the north all the way down to the Mexican border, stretching across approximately 800 miles of landscape. In Washington, more acres had been burned in 2020 than in the past 12 fire seasons. The fires are being fueled by continuing dry conditions.

2019: In 2019 there were 50,477 wildfires compared with 58,083 wildfires in 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). About 4.7 million acres were burned in 2019 while there were 8.8 million acres burned in 2018. In late October significant fires broke out throughout California, leading to the evacuation of more than 200,000 people and the declaration of a state of emergency.

The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County ignited on October 23, and burned about 78,000 acres—an area more than twice the size of the city of San Francisco. According to CalFire, 374 buildings were destroyed, and 60 more were damaged.

The Getty Fire in Los Angeles broke out on October 28, fueled by strong Santa Ana winds, with wind gusts up to 80 miles an hour and burned 745 acres.

In Ventura County, the Maria Fire began on October 1 and burned 10,000 acres and destroyed four structures. The Ranch Fire, ignited November 3, burned 2,500 acres.

2018: In 2018 there were 58,083 wildfires, compared with 71,499 wildfires in 2017, according to the NIFC. About 8.8 million acres were burned in 2018, compared with 10 million in 2017. The Mendocino Complex Fire broke out on July 27 in Northern California and grew to be the largest fire state history to date, with 459,000 acres burned. The Carr Fire, which broke out on July 23 in Northern California, was the 8th most destructive fire in the state’s history to date. Eight fatalities are attributed to the fire, and 1,614 structures were destroyed. Aon estimates that insured losses from the Carr Fire were $1.3 billion in dollars when it occurred and in 2020 dollars, making it the 10th-costliest wildfire in the United States.

The Camp Fire broke out in Butte County, California, on November 8 and became the deadliest and most destructive fire on record in the state. According to Cal Fire statistics 85 people perished. About 153,000 acres were burned and 18,800 structures were destroyed. Aon estimates that insured losses from the Camp Fire totaled $10.0 billion in dollars when it occurred and $10.3 billion in 2020 dollars, and was the costliest wildfire on record.

The Hill and Woolsey Fires started on November 8. The Woolsey Fire burned about 97,000 acres, according to Cal Fire. It destroyed about 1,600 structures and killed three people. Aon estimates that insured losses from the Woolsey Fire totaled $4.2 billion when it occurred and $4.3 billion in 2020 dollars, making it the third costliest wildfire in the United States. The Hill Fire burned about 4,500 acres and destroyed four structures.

In response to the soaring cost of wildfires in 2018, which could add up to more than $17 billion when all losses are tallied, California enacted legislation to form a $21 billion wildfire insurance fund designed to cover California utility companies for some of the losses they could incur when they pay victims of fires that their equipment caused. In May 2019 the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) announced that the Camp Fire—the deadliest and costliest wildfire in U.S. history—was caused by electrical transmission lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). The fund would prevent the state from having to bail out utilities facing bankruptcy, removing the burden from taxpayers. The California Earthquake Authority (CEA), which currently purchases reinsurance for earthquakes that occur in the state, will handle administrative responsibility for the fund. Utilities will contribute to the fund, while the state will raise 50 percent of the $21 billion via bond sales. According to Artemis, the fund could operate as a risk pool where electric utility exposure could be handled by insurance, reinsurance or insurance-linked securities. By the end of July 2019 all three of California’s utilities had agreed to join and commit funds to the plan.

2017: In 2017 there were 71,499 wildfires, compared to 65,575 wildfires in 2016, according to the NIFC. About 10 million acres were burned in 2017, compared with 5.4 million in 2016. The number of acres burned in 2017 was higher than the 10-year average. From October 6 to October 25, eight counties in Northern California were hit by a devastating wildfire outbreak that caused at least 23 fatalities, burned 245,000 acres and destroyed more than 8,700 structures.

The Tubbs Fire began on October 8 and destroyed almost 37,000 acres and 5,600 structures and claimed 22 victims. Aon estimates that insured losses from the Tubbs Fire totaled $8.7 billion when it occurred, and $9.1 billion in 2020 dollars, making it the second-costliest wildfire in the United States. The Atlas Fire also began on October 8 and consumed 52,000 acres and destroyed 120 structures. Six people perished in the Atlas Fire. According to Aon the Atlas Fire caused insured losses of $3.0 billion when it occurred or $3.1 billion in 2020 dollars, making it the fifth-costliest U.S. wildfire. The Thomas Fire was ignited on December 4. It burned 282,000 acres and destroyed 1,063 structures. Aon estimates that insured losses from the Thomas Fire totaled $2.3 billion when it occurred and $2.4 billion in 2020 dollars. The Thomas Fire was the sixth-costliest on record in the United States.

Annual Number of Acres Burned in Wildland Fires, 1980-2019

 

*2004 fires and acres do not include state lands for North Carolina.

Source: National Interagency Fire Center.

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FireLine®, Verisk’s wildfire risk management tool, assesses wildfire risk at the address level using advanced remote sensing and digital mapping technology. The three primary factors considered in analyzing wildfire risk are distribution of vegetative fuel, steepness of slope and degree of access for firefighting equipment. FireLine assigns a wildfire hazard score for each factor plus a cumulative score, on a scale from negligible to extreme risk. The following chart ranks the most wildfire-prone western U.S. states by high to extreme wildfire risk as of 2019. According to Verisk estimates, more than 4.5 million U.S. properties are at high to extreme wildfire risk.

Top 10 States At High To Extreme Wildfire Risk, 2019 (1)

 

Rank State Estimated number
of properties at risk
Rank State Percent of
properties at risk
1 California 2,019,800 1 Montana 29%
2 Texas 717,800 2 Idaho 26
3 Colorado 371,100 3 Colorado 17
4 Arizona 237,900 4 California 15
5 Idaho 175,000 5 New Mexico 15
6 Washington 160,500 6 Utah 14
7 Oklahoma 153,400 7 Wyoming 14
8 Oregon 151,400 8 Oklahoma 9
9 Montana 137,800 9 Oregon 9
10 Utah 136,000 10 Arizona 8

(1) As of September 2019.

Source: Verisk Wildfire Risk Analytics used data from FireLine®, Verisk's wildfire risk management tool.

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Wildfires By State, 2019

 

State Number of fires Number of acres burned
Alabama 1,107 22,158
Alaska 720 2,498,159
Arizona 1,869 384,942
Arkansas 660 8,602
California 8,194 259,148
Colorado 857 40,392
Connecticut 88 72
Delaware 0 0
District of Columbia 0 0
Florida 2,121 122,500
Georgia 3,158 12,407
Hawaii 155 10,710
Idaho 960 284,026
Illinois 2 41
Indiana 38 523
Iowa 153 2,020
Kansas 19 21,167
Kentucky 755 11,714
Louisiana 361 3,059
Maine 355 142
Maryland 140 1,498
Massachusetts 289 248
Michigan 361 1,128
Minnesota 1,021 5,862
Mississippi 959 5,473
Missouri 67 5,091
Montana 1,474 64,835
Nebraska 15 9,478
Nevada 562 82,282
New Hampshire 16 25
New Jersey 727 11,346
New Mexico 859 79,887
New York 79 221
North Carolina 3,872 14,548
North Dakota 488 4,454
Ohio 498 1,038
Oklahoma 1,104 67,142
Oregon 2,293 79,732
Pennsylvania 547 691
Puerto Rico 97 2,906
Rhode Island 45 33
South Carolina 992 5,939
South Dakota 346 2,261
Tennessee 571 5,478
Texas 6,892 215,493
Utah 1,025 92,380
Vermont 19 22
Virginia 364 2,643
Washington 1,394 169,742
West Virginia 593 7,653
Wisconsin 710 1,198
Wyoming 486 41,857
United States (1) 50,477 4,664,366

(1) Includes Puerto Rico.

Source: National Interagency Fire Center.

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Top 10 States For Wildfires Ranked By Number Of Fires And By Number Of Acres Burned, 2019

 

Rank State Number of fires Rank State Number of acres burned
1 California 8,194 1 Alaska 2,498,159
2 Texas 6,892 2 Arizona 384,942
3 North Carolina 3,872 3 Idaho 284,026
4 Georgia 3,158 4 California 259,148
5 Oregon 2,293 5 Texas 215,493
6 Florida 2,121 6 Washington 169,742
7 Arizona 1,869 7 Florida 122,500
8 Montana 1,474 8 Utah 92,380
9 Washington 1,394 9 Nevada 82,282
10 Alabama 1,107 10 New Mexico 79,887

Source: National Interagency Fire Center.

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Wildfire Lossses In The United States, 2010-2019 (1)

(2019 $ millions)

(1) Adjusted for inflation by Munich Re based on the Consumer Price Index.

Source: © 2020 Munich Re, NatCatSERVICE.

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Top 10 Costliest Wildland Fires In The United States (1)

($ millions)

      Estimated insured loss
Rank Year Name Dollars when occurred In 2020 dollars (2)
1 2018 Camp Fire $10,000 $10,260
2 2017 Tubbs Fire 8,700 9,120
3 2018 Woolsey Fire 4,200 4,310
4 1991 Tunnel Fire (Oakland Hills Fire) 1,700 3,200
5 2017 Atlas Fire 3,000 3,140
6 2017 Thomas Fire 2,250 2,360
7 2007 Witch Fire 1,600 1,980
8 2003 Cedar Fire 1,060 1,480
9 2003 Old Fire 980 1,360
10 2018 Carr Fire 1,250 1,280

(1) Includes losses sustained by private insurers and government-sponsored programs such as the National Flood Insurance Program. Includes events that occurred through 2019. All fires on this list occurred in California. Includes Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ranked on losses in 2020 dollars. Subject to change as loss estimates are further developed. As of November 25, 2020.

(2) Adjusted for inflation by Aon using the U.S. Consumer Price Index.

Source: Aon.

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Top 10 Largest California Wildfires (1)

 

Rank Fire name (cause) Date County Acres Structures Deaths
1 August Complex (Under investigation) (2) August 2020 Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Tehama, Glenn, Lake, and Colusa 1,032,264 935 1
2 Mendocino Complex (Under investigation) July 2018 Colusa, Lake, Mendocino and Glenn 459,123 280 1
3 SCU Lightning Complex (Under investigation) (2) August 2020 Stanislaus, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin 396,624 222 0
4 LNU Lightning Complex (Under investigation) (2) August 2020 Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Yolo and Solano 363,220 1,491 6
5 Creek Fire (Under investigation) (2) September 2020 Fresno and Madera 350,331 856 0
6 North Complex (Under investigation) (2) August 2020 Butte, Plumas and Yuba 318,930 2,352 15
7 Thomas (Power lines) December 2017 Ventura and Santa Barbara 281,893 1,063 2
8 Cedar (Human related) October 2003 San Diego 273,246 2,820 15
9 Rush (Lightning) August 2012 Lassen 271,911 CA/43,666 NV 0 0
10 Rim (Human related) August 2013 Tuolumne 257,314 112 0

(1) As of October 20, 2020.
(2) Numbers not final.

Source: Calfire.

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Top 10 Most Destructive California Wildfires (1)

 

Rank Fire name and cause Date County Acres Structures Deaths
1 Camp Fire (Power lines) November 2018 Butte 153,336 18,804 85
2 Tubbs (Electrical) October 2017 Napa and Sonoma 36,807 5,636 22
3 Tunnel - Oakland Hills (Rekindle) October 1991 Alameda 1,600 2,900 25
4 Cedar (Human related) October 2003 San Diego 273,246 2,820 15
5 North Complex (Under investigation) (2) August 2020 Butte, Plumas and Yuba 318,930 2,352 15
6 Valley (Electrical) September 2015 Lake, Napa and Sonoma 76,067 1,955 4
7 Witch (Power lines) October 2007 San Diego 197,990 1,650 2
8 Woolsey (Under investigation) November 2017 Ventura 96,949 1,643 3
9 Carr (Human related) July 2008 Shasta County and Trinity 229,651 1,614 8
10 Glass fire (Under investigation) (2) September 2020 Napa and Sonoma 67,484 1,520 0

(1) As of October 20, 2020.
(2) Numbers not final.

Source: Calfire.

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Top 10 Deadliest California Wildfires (1)

 

Rank Fire name and cause Date County Acres Structures Deaths
1 Camp Fire (Power lines) November 2018 Butte 153,336 18,804 85
2 Griffith Park (Unknown) October 1933 Los Angeles 47 0 29
3 Tunnel - Oakland Hills (Rekindle) October 1991 Alameda 1,600 2,900 25
4 Tubbs (Electrical) October 2017 Napa and Sonoma 36,807 5,643 22
5 North Complex (Under investigation) (2) August 2020 Butte, Plumas and Yuba 318,930 2,352 15
6 Cedar (Human related) October 2003 San Diego 273,246 2,820 15
7 Rattlesnake (Arson) July 1953 Glenn 1,340 0 15
8 Loop (Unknown) November 1956 Los Angeles 2,028 0 12
9 Hauser Creek (Human related) October 1943 San Diego 13,145 0 11
10 Inaja (Human related) November 1966 San Diego 43,904 0 11

(1) As of October 20, 2020.
(2) Numbers not final.

Source: Calfire.

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