Wildfire statistics: Which U.S. states have the most wildfires?

We analyzed 2021 wildfire data to find out which U.S. states have the most frequent and destructive wildfires.

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Pat Howard

Pat Howard

Managing Editor & Licensed Home Insurance Expert

Pat Howard is a managing editor and licensed home insurance expert at Policygenius, where he specializes in homeowners insurance. His work and expertise has been featured in MarketWatch, Real Simple, Fox Business, VentureBeat, This Old House, Investopedia, Fatherly, Lifehacker, Better Homes & Garden, Property Casualty 360, and elsewhere.

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By

Britta M. Moss

Britta M. Moss

Property & casualty claim consultant and expert witness

Britta M. Moss, CPCU, SCLA, AIC-M, has over 25 years of insurance industry experience. In her work as a property and casualty claim consultant, she provides consultation and expert witness services in claim handling standards, practices, and norms.  She has been retained by law firms representing plaintiffs and those representing insurer defendants involved in disputes or litigation regarding coverage analysis, investigation, liability determination, damage evaluation, negotiation and settlement.  She is a graduate of The Ohio State University. 

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Roughly 60,000 wildfires burn 8 million acres in the U.S. each year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). [1] While the total number of wildfires has gone down about 25% since a decade ago, they’re more destructive and deadly than ever. And experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict another above-average wildfire season in the Western U.S.

There are a couple of culprits for this. Our warming planet means earlier and shorter springs, and that means foliage and pine needles have more time to dry up and turn into wildfire fuel. The second reason is overdevelopment in the so-called wildland-urban interface. [2]

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In 2021, there were nearly 60,000 wildfires nationwide, which accumulated to to over 7 million burned acres. [3] In 2022, California saw its first fire in January — the ninth driest January on record for the state.

The year 2020 was also tumultuous — four of the five largest wildfires in California state history happened that year: August Complex, SCU Lightning Complex, LNU Lightning Complex, and Creek Fire. These fires combined to burn over 2 million acres and cost the state billions of dollars in property damage. 

Close to 90% of all wildfires are caused by humans, but lightning fires account for more than half of burned acreage each year. [4] There’s no greater evidence of this than 2020’s August Complex fire, a lightning strike wildfire that burned over 1 million acres.

Wildfire statistics by state

The state of California closed out 2021 with around 9,000 wildfires and over 2 million acres burned, nearly half of which were caused by July’s Dixie Fire — the second most destructive wildfire in state history. 

The state of Texas was second to California with about 5,576 fires, but it was Oregon that had one of the more brutal wildfire seasons to date. The Beaver State had 2,202 total fires — sixth most of any state — but they burned 828,777 acres, with some lasting multiple months.

Keep in mind that the number of fires and acreage burned may be a good indicator of wildfire activity in a particular state, but it doesn’t tell the entire story. In fact, most wildfires happen in undeveloped areas that have little impact on human communities.

For example, hundreds of thousands — and sometimes millions — of acres of land burn in Alaska on an annual basis, but most are burning on federal lands and don’t impact communities. Conversely, around 960,000 acres burn in California every year, but because it's so much more developed, wildfires cause billions more in damage.

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What are the most dangerous states for wildfires?

As mentioned, wildfire frequency and number of acres burned doesn’t always spell catastrophe. Many of the largest and most sweeping wildfires are often naturally caused and have a beneficial impact on the environment.

But wildfires can also have a devastating impact on human lives, development, and communities. For example, wildfires in Colorado burned 48,195 acres in 2021 — the 18th-most of any U.S. state. However, Colorado has the 3rd-most properties at high to extreme risk of wildfire damage. [5] While 2018’s Camp Fire in Northern California wasn’t even one of the 20 largest wildfires in the state’s history, it was by far the most costly. The Camp Fire burned around 150,000 acres, destroyed around 19,000 structures, and killed 85 people. [6]

Here are the 10 most dangerous states for wildfires based on the number of housing units at high to extreme risk of wildfire damage, according to Verisk Wildfire Analytics. 

1. California

Number of housing units: 13,680,100

Number of properties at risk: 2,040,600

Percentage of housing units at risk: 15%

Worst year for insured wildfire losses: $14 billion (2017)

2. Texas

Number of housing units: 9,977,400

Number of properties at risk: 717,800

Percentage of housing units at risk: 7%

Worst year for insured wildfire losses: $530 million (2011)

3. Colorado

Number of housing units: 2,212,900

Number of properties at risk: 373,900

Percentage of housing units at risk: 17%

Worst year for insured wildfire losses: $450 million (2012)

4. Arizona

Number of housing units: 2,844,500

Number of properties at risk: 242,100

Percentage of housing units at risk: 9%

Worst year for insured wildfire losses: $120 million (2002)

5. Idaho

Number of housing units: 667,800

Number of properties at risk: 175,000

Percentage of housing units at risk: 26%

Worst year for insured wildfire losses: N/A 

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6. Washington

Number of housing units: 2,885,700

Number of properties at risk: 155,500

Percentage of housing units at risk: 6%

Worst year for insured wildfire losses: N/A

7. Oklahoma

Number of housing units: 1,664,400

Number of properties at risk: 153,400

Percentage of housing units at risk: 9%

Worst year for insured wildfire losses: N/A

8. Oregon

Number of housing units: 1,675,600

Number of properties at risk: 147,500

Percentage of housing units at risk: 9%

Worst year for insured wildfire losses: N/A

9. Montana

Number of housing units: 482,800

Number of properties at risk: 137,800

Percentage of housing units at risk: 29%

Worst year for insured wildfire losses: N/A

10. Utah

Number of housing units: 979,700

Number of properties at risk: 136,000

Percentage of housing units at risk: 14%

Worst year for insured wildfire losses: N/A

Does homeowners insurance cover wildfires?

In most cases, yes, fire is listed as a covered peril in most standard homeowners insurance policies. This means if your home is damaged or destroyed by a wildfire or bushfire, your insurance can help cover the cost of rebuild expenses or property replacement. 

However, many insurance companies in wildfire-prone states — including California, Colorado, and Oregon — are no longer offering coverage in high-risk areas, making it difficult to obtain insurance for your home.

If you’re unable to find a policy, you have a couple of options. 

1. Fire insurance

If you can't find standard home insurance coverage, one option is looking into fire insurance coverage with an excess and surplus insurer that specializes in covering specific risks that standard insurance companies won’t take on, including wildfires. Bear in mind that these types of insurers aren’t admitted with the state, meaning they don’t have to abide by the same rules and regulations as traditional companies. This has its benefits — such as filling in your much-needed coverage gap — but it also means the insurance company can charge you whatever it wants for potentially substandard coverage.

2. FAIR Plans

You may be able to find coverage through a Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan in your state. FAIR Plans are a type of last-resort homeowners insurance that provide fire and wind insurance for homes that aren’t insurable on the traditional insurance market.

In most states, FAIR Plans only cover damage to your home caused by fire, smoke, wind, lightning, and explosion perils, with an option to pay extra for vandalism coverage or replacement cost dwelling coverage. So the protection you’re getting isn’t as robust as with a  standard homeowners insurance policy. 

But that may change soon for California residents, thanks to new orders put forward by the state’s insurance commissioner. Going forward, California FAIR Plans may be required to offer the same coverages included in a standard homeowners insurance policy. 

→ Learn more about homeowners insurance and wildfire damage

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Frequently asked questions

Which state has the most wildfires?

The state of California sees the most wildfires than any other state in the U.S. In 2021, over 2.5 million acres burned in the Golden State, as well as 3,629 structures.

How often do wildfires occur?

Since 1983, the U.S. has roughly seen an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 wildfires per year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center and the Environmental Protection Agency. That said, the frequency of wildifres and the amount of acres burned has been on the rise since the 1980's.

References

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  1. National Interagency Fire Center

    . "

    Total Wildland Fires and Acres (1983-2021)

    ." Accessed February 23, 2022.

  2. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

    . "

    Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk

    ." Accessed February 23, 2022.

  3. Congressional Research Service

    . "

    Wildfire Statistics

    ." Accessed June 21, 2022.

  4. Congressional Research Service

    . "

    Wildfire Statistics

    ." Accessed February 23, 2022.

  5. Verisk

    . "

    Verisk Wildfire Risk Analysis

    ." Accessed February 23, 2022.

  6. Cal Fire

    . "

    CAL FIRE Investigators Determine Cause of the Camp Fire

    ." Accessed February 23, 2022.

Author

Managing Editor & Licensed Home Insurance Expert

Pat Howard

Managing Editor & Licensed Home Insurance Expert

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Pat Howard is a managing editor and licensed home insurance expert at Policygenius, where he specializes in homeowners insurance. His work and expertise has been featured in MarketWatch, Real Simple, Fox Business, VentureBeat, This Old House, Investopedia, Fatherly, Lifehacker, Better Homes & Garden, Property Casualty 360, and elsewhere.

Expert reviewer

Property & casualty claim consultant and expert witness

Britta M. Moss

Property & casualty claim consultant and expert witness

gray linkedin icon link

Britta M. Moss, CPCU, SCLA, AIC-M, has over 25 years of insurance industry experience. In her work as a property and casualty claim consultant, she provides consultation and expert witness services in claim handling standards, practices, and norms.  She has been retained by law firms representing plaintiffs and those representing insurer defendants involved in disputes or litigation regarding coverage analysis, investigation, liability determination, damage evaluation, negotiation and settlement.  She is a graduate of The Ohio State University. 

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