In 2021 alone, there were 58,985 wildfires in the U.S., which burned over 7 million acres of land. Although wildfires are considered natural disasters, people are responsible for about 90% of them. The other major causes are lightning and lava.
Wildfires are not only an environmental concern but also a health concern. They affect an area’s air quality, increasing the amount of pollution. It may also cause respiratory diseases, leading to more severe health issues.
Understanding wildfire statistics can inform those in wildfire-prone areas about their risk and the possible effects on their finances, including property loss. Exposure may also cause compromises to an individual's health, leading to an increased need for medical attention and more medical expenses.
Overview of Wildfires
Most wildfires are human-caused. For instance, many wildfires are from improperly disposed of cigarettes and unattended campfires. Only 10% are considered natural disasters triggered by lightning or lava.
Wildfires also bring many hazards, which range from property damage to increased healthcare needs. Wildfires have decreased since 2017, but the acreage burned is still significant.
The graph above shows how the number of wildfires has changed from 1983 to 2021. Using the National Interagency Fire Center's wildfire statistics for the last decade, it’s crucial to note that numbers spiked in 2011 and 2017 — over 70,000 wildfires occurred during these years. Since 2017, numbers have been lower, staying below 60,000 annually.
However, the number of acres burned does not follow the same pattern. Considering how many wildfires happened in 2017, it's not surprising that over 10 million acres were damaged. However, the total acres burned in 2020 was slightly higher, with fewer wildfires.
There’s a wealth of data regarding wildfires in the U.S., based on what authorities track and measure them, such as fire statistics by state, showing which areas are more prone to being affected. MoneyGeek also looked at the major causes of wildfires and how much money it takes to contain their damage. The sections below cover the topic of wildfires in more detail.
Recovering from a natural disaster can be costly — and wildfires are no exception. Ensuring your financial preparedness can go a long way. Taking precautions means you have support if you need to rebuild or repair your home, pay medical bills or lose your job.
The wildfire's location determines the entity responsible for responding to it. The responsibility falls on the state's shoulders if it occurs on non-federal lands, such as privately-owned sectors or tribal and trust lands.
However, the federal government — particularly the Forest Service under the USDA — holds the reins if the wildfire is on federal land. Their scope of responsibility covers those in national parks or wildlife refuges. Although this delineation exists, state and federal agencies usually work together to suppress wildfires and mitigate the damage they cause.
You might think that wildfire occurrences are few and far between. In actuality, an average of 61,255.3 wildfires happened from 2012 to 2021. There were 58,985 recorded incidents across various states in the last year alone.
Generally, the number of wildfires has been steadily decreasing for the last three decades. Breaking down the data in 10-year increments, you’ll notice the change in more recent years:
- 1991 to 2000: average of 81,164 wildfires per year
- 2001 to 2010: average of 76,521 wildfires per year
- 2011 to 2020: average of 62,769 wildfires per year
There were four instances between 2013 and 2021 wherein the number of wildfires in a year exceeded 90,000. These were as follows:
- 2006: 96,385 wildfires
- 1996: 96,363 wildfires
- 1999: 92,487 wildfires
- 2000: 92,250 wildfires
Since 2006, numbers show a downward trend, save for 2017, when they spiked to 71,499. It's also worth noting that wildfires went down by 20,195 from 2012 to 2013. That year, 47,579 wildfires were the lowest since the National Interagency Fire Center started tracking wildfire statistics in 1983.
Wildfires by Acres
While the general trend of wildfires has declined, you can't say the same for the acreage affected. Although the numbers dip and climb, the overall trend is upward. It means that despite the decreasing number of wildfires, the damage they leave behind is growing.
Wildfires burned 7.13 million acres of land in 2021. That’s more than five times the amount of acres in 1983 when the National Interagency Fire Center started collecting wildfire statistics. There have been three years wherein wildfires burned more than 10 million acres:
- 2015: 10.13 million acres
- 2020: 10.12 million acres
- 2017: 10.03 million acres
The United States Environmental Protection Agency labeled 2012 to 2021 as the warmest decade on record. Hotter temperatures create drier conditions and more flammable material, helping wildfires spread.
Looking at the burnt acreage every ten years shows an upward pattern. The average number of acres burned by wildfires from 2001 to 2010 is almost double that of the previous decade. Although the difference is not as drastic, the average for the next ten years also shows an increase in average:
- 1991 to 2000: 3.60 million acres
- 2001 to 2010: 6.53 million acres
- 2011 to 2020: 7.52 million acres
Given these numbers, knowing how to protect yourself against wildfires is crucial.
Wildfires and Acres Burned by State
Wildfires pose at least a moderate risk to around 30 million homes in the U.S., but it is more common in some states than others. MoneyGeek explored how wildfire incidents and burnt acreage vary across states and regions, including which ones experience it most.
The map above indicates which states had the most wildfires in 2021. A darker color corresponds to more wildfires, while a lighter shade correlates with fewer instances. The same goes for the total number of acres burned.
Looking at the top ten states for wildfires and total acres burned, there are six with high numbers for both categories.
It shows that the number of wildfires in a state can indicate how much damage is caused but does not guarantee it. For example, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Minnesota are part of the top ten for wildfires but the least affected in terms of acreage.
The opposite is true for Idaho, New Mexico, Alaska and Kansas. They’re part of the top ten states with the most acreage burned despite having experienced fewer instances of wildfires.
Wildfires by Geographic Area
Besides looking at fire statistics by state, you can also look at it by region. The U.S. has ten regions: Alaska, Northwest, Northern California, Southern California, Northern Rockies, Great Basin, Rocky Mountain, Southwest, Eastern and Southern.
You can use the map below to see how the number of wildfires and acres burned vary by geographic location.
Although California had the most wildfires in 2021, the region with the highest count was Southern, with 22,164. It may come as a surprise that the combined number of wildfires for the Northern and Southern California regions fall significantly short at roughly 9,200.
The three regions with the highest incidents of wildfires are:
- Southern: 22,164 wildfires
- Eastern: 10,855 wildfires
- Southern California: 5,324 wildfires
However, it’s worth noting that these regions do not rank high for total acres burned. Once again, it supports the idea that the number of wildfires does not automatically equate to the amount of damage it causes. The Southwest region had 640,863 acres burned despite only having 2,404 wildfires during 2021. Meanwhile, the Eastern Region, which ranks second in wildfires after Northern California, only had 152,669 acres burned.
Three regions had more than a million acres burned by wildfires in 2021. These were as follows:
- Northern Rockies: 1.07 million acres burned
- Northwest: 1.50 million acres burned
- Northern California: 1.95 million acres burned
These states suffered substantial damage from wildfires based on their geographic location.
Major Causes of Wildfires
With the number of wildfires that happen yearly, you may wonder what causes them. Despite the various wildfire causes, they fall into two categories.
Lightning strikes cause some wildfires, but most are human-caused. MoneyGeek's graph presents these in greater detail.
Sources: National Interagency Fire Center
Occurrences of Human-Caused Wildfires
Around 90% of wildfires in the U.S. start from human interference. These causes include:
- Burning debris
- Unattended campfires
- Power lines
- Sparks from equipment
In 2021, 52,641 wildfires were human-caused. However, the most were in 2006. Out of the 96,385 wildfires recorded that year, 80,220 were human-caused (83.23%). The other years with the highest number of human-caused wildfires are as follows:
- 2007: 73,446 wildfires
- 2008: 70,093 wildfires
- 2001: 70,066 wildfires
- 2009: 69,650 wildfires
Fortunately, human-caused wildfires have been on a downward trend. From 2001 to 2010, the average number of wildfires per year was 65,365. It went down to 54,888 from 2011 to 2020.
Sources: National Interagency Fire Center
Acres Burned by Human-Caused Wildfires
The 52,641 wildfires in 2021 burned over 3 million acres, about half of the previous year’s total. Based on the National Interagency Fire Center’s collection of human-caused wildfire and burned acreage statistics dated back to 2001, 2020 ranks the highest.
The other years with the highest amount of burned acreage are as follows:
- 2018: 5.64 million acres burned
- 2011: 5.36 million acres burned
- 2017: 4.83 million acres burned
- 2006: 4.40 million acres burned
While the general trend of human-caused wildfires is decreasing, the number of acres burned is increasing. From 2001 to 2010, the average total was 2.39 million, increasing by approximately 43% over the next ten years.
Occurrences of Lightning Wildfires
Several wildfires in the country are still considered natural disasters. Aside from human interference, lightning is another major contributor. The graph above shows how the number of lightning-caused wildfires has shifted over the years.
The years with the most wildfires caused by lightning all occurred before 2008:
- 2006: 16,165 lightning-caused wildfires
- 2001: 14,094 lightning-caused wildfires
- 2003: 12,776 lightning-caused wildfires
- 2007: 12,261 lightning-caused wildfires
- 2002: 11,435 lightning-caused wildfires
However, the general downward trend of wildfires from lightning is noticeable. From 2001 to 2010, the average number of lightning-caused wildfires per year was 11,160. That’s 41.11% higher than the average from 2011 to 2020, which was 7,909.
It’s also worth noting that since 2012, the number of lightning-caused wildfires has not exceeded 10,000 per year.
Acres Burned by Lightning Wildfires
The years with the most acres burned don’t coincide with those having the highest number of lightning wildfires, save for 2007. Those with the most acres burned are as follows:
- 2015: 8.11 million acres
- 2005: 7.17 million acres
- 2004: 7.01 million acres
- 2012: 6.83 million acres
No clear trends emerged since numbers fluctuated throughout the 21-year range. However, numbers stayed below 6 million after 2015, the year with the most acres burned from lightning wildfires. In 2021, there were 4.1 million acres burned from 6,344 wildfires.
The years with the least number of acres burned are just as scattered as those with the most. The three lowest were:
- 2016: 1.74 million acres
- 2001: 1.82 million acres
- 2008: 1.86 million acres
Wildfires caused by lightning produce significant damage based on the data. Unfortunately, with no clear trends, they can continue as sporadically as they have in the last two decades.
The Cost of Suppressing Wildfires
The connection between wildfires and finances may not be apparent, but the more you understand the numbers and your risk, the better you can prepare and mitigate its potential effects on your life. For example, purchasing homeowners insurance becomes more vital if you know wildfires are more likely to happen in your state.
Climate change also increases the likelihood of wildfires, so investing in health insurance or a homeowners insurance policy is a wise choice, especially if you live in a city with high climate risks. However, the damage isn’t limited to individuals. Wildfires can destroy structures and burn the land, which is why suppression is crucial. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come cheap. Suppression costs have gone from under $240 million in 1985 to a staggering $4.39 billion in 2021.
Suppression costs have increased over three and a half decades. In 2021, the federal government spent over $4 billion on equipment and personnel, including firefighters and other first responders, to extinguish wildfires (or at least keep them from spreading). The Forest Service under the USDA contributed around 85% ($3.7 billion), while the Department of Interior Agencies shouldered the remaining 15% ($648,000).
2021’s suppression costs are the highest since the National Interagency Fire Center started monitoring statistics on wildfires. Aside from 2021, the years with the highest suppression costs are as follows.
- 2018: $3.14 billion
- 2017: $2.92 billion
- 2020: $2.27 billion
- 2015: $2.13 billion
It’s crucial to note that all of these costs are within the last decade. A look at the per-decade average since 1991 also tells the same story.
- 2011 to 2020: $2.06 billion
- 2001 to 2010: $1.24 billion
- 1991 to 2000: $554.78 million
Suppression costs include equipment that helps stop or contain wildfires, such as bulldozers, airplanes and helicopters. It also covers incident command personnel, firefighters and the necessary infrastructure to manage large fires.
Wildfire Statistics FAQ
We’ve seen the damage wildfires can cause and the idea of experiencing one can be overwhelming. However, knowing the causes can help homeowners be better prepared. Further, understanding that the federal government is continuously taking steps to keep everyone safe may provide some peace of mind.
MoneyGeek answered some commonly asked questions about wildfires below.
Expert Insights on Wildfire Statistics
Although wildfires are common, it’s challenging to understand their impact unless affected. MoneyGeek gathered experts’ insights on wildfires to provide more context.
- What are the dangers of wildfires?
- Given that wildfires can affect millions of homes, what can homeowners do to prevent or mitigate the damage?
- Although wildfires are considered natural disasters, only around 10% are caused by environmental factors like lightning and lava. People cause the rest. What advice can you give to help decrease the possibility of wildfires occurring?
Founder & CEO of Watson Buys
Human Resources Director of Family Destinations Guide
Real Estate Expert at NeighborWho
Dealing with wildfires and other natural disasters can be overwhelming — physically, emotionally and financially. However, arming yourself with information can make it more manageable. Here are some online resources that may be helpful to you.
- States with the Most (and Least) Climate Risk Today: Climate change is one factor affecting the increase of wildfires. Find out if you live in a state that is considered high risk.
- Emergency Preparedness: Responding to a natural disaster is crucial, but being prepared is better. MoneyGeek’s page helps you develop an emergency plan for safety and to have insurance against potential damages.
- Wildfires, Hurricanes: The Economic Impact of Natural Disasters: Natural disasters — wildfires and hurricanes, specifically — have triggered insurance premiums and construction changes. Learn more about these connections.
- How to Protect Your Home from Wildfires: Taking action to help suppress and mitigate the damage caused by wildfires is recommended. MoneyGeek walks you through the many things you can do to increase your level of safety.
- Navigating Climate Change and Insurance as a Homeowner: The effects of climate change aren't limited to the environment. See how your insurance costs can be affected.
About Angelique Cruz
- Congressional Research Service. "Wildfire Statistics." Accessed September 4, 2022.
- National Interagency Fire Center. "Human-Caused Wildfires." Accessed September 5, 2022.
- National Interagency Fire Center. "Lightning-Caused Wildfires." Accessed September 5, 2022.
- National Interagency Fire Center. "Suppression Costs." Accessed September 5, 2022.