The most wildfire-prone states in the U.S.

Which states experience the most wildfires?

Pat Howard 1600

Pat Howard

Published October 14, 2020

A total of 11.7 million wildfires have burned 1.1 billion acres across the United States since 1926, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). You wouldn’t know it from looking at the news, but the total number of wildfires has actually gone down in recent years — since 2000, there have been around 1.4 million wildfires compared to 1.8 million from 1980 to 1999, and 2.7 million in the 20 years before that — but the fires themselves are getting larger and more devastating. More acres of land have succumbed to wildfires in the last 20 years than the 40 years before that combined, and that pace doesn’t look to be slowing down.

In fact, four of the five largest wildfires in California state history — August Complex, SCU Lightning Complex, LNU Lightning Complex, and Creek Fire — have occurred just in 2020 alone. In most cases, wildfires are human-caused (88% on average from 2015 to 2019), but wildfires caused by lightning tend to be bigger and burn the most acreage (55% of the average acreage burned was from lightning-caused fires). There’s no greater evidence of that than the August Complex Fire, a lightning strike fire that burned a million acres and counting as of October 2020, and is easily the largest California wildfire ever recorded.

IN THIS ARTICLE

Wildfires by state

With 9,166 wildfires over the past five years, Texas is the most fire-prone state during that span, followed by California with 8,380 and North Carolina with 4,091. Although Alaska only saw around 558 wildfires per year on average from 2015–2019, an average of more than 1.8 million acres burned in the Last Frontier State — that’s almost twice as much as California, the state with the second most acres burned during that period.

Keep in mind that the number of fires and acreage burned may be a good indicator of wildfire activity in a particular state, but doesn’t tell the entire story. In fact, most wildfires happen in undeveloped areas that have little impact on human communities, according to the Congressional Research Service. Around 2 million acres burn in Alaska every year — far more than any other state — but most of those fires are burning on federal lands and don’t impact communities. Conversely, around 960,000 acres burn in California every year, but because the state is so much more developed, it reports billions of dollars in insured wildfire loss alone on an annual basis.

Which states have the most homes at risk of wildfire damage?

As we just touched on, 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. Colorado had the 14th-most burned acres on average from 2015 to 2019, but has the 3rd-highest number of properties at risk of wildfire damage, according to Verisk Wildfire Risk Analytics. 2018’s Camp Fire in Northern California wasn’t even one of the 20 largest wildfires in the state’s history, but it was by far the most destructive. The Camp Fire burned around 150,000 acres, destroyed around 19,000 structures, and resulted in 85 civilian fatalities, according to Cal Fire.

1. California

Number of housing units - 13,680,100
Number of properties at risk - 2,054,900
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 - 242,200
Percentage of housing units at risk - 9%
Worst year for insured wildfire losses - $120 miillion (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 - 160,500
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 - 151,400
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

Courtesy of Verisk FireLine Risk Reports. Data reflects an indication of wildfire risk, as of 2019.

Homeowners insurance and wildfires: what you need to know

Homeowners insurance covers fire damage to your home and personal belongings, even if the loss was caused by a wildland fire. But insurance companies in many wildfire-prone states, including California, Colorado, and Oregon, are beginning to pull out of the extremely high-risk areas and many homeowners in those states may find it difficult to obtain coverage.

If you’re unable to find homeowners insurance, you generally have a couple of options. Many insurance companies specialize in insuring specific risks, or hazards, that standard insurers won’t take on. If wildfire damage is excluded from your policy, or you’re struggling to find homeowners insurance altogether, consider high-risk homeowners insurance through a non-admitted surplus carrier. (Non-admitted means the carrier isn’t licensed with the state, but they’re nevertheless allowed to sell insurance. Surplus carriers don’t have to follow the same underwriting criteria as admitted carriers, so they’re able to take on higher risks.)

However, the smarter option may be to get coverage through your state’s Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan, a type of last-resort homeowners insurance that provides fire and wind coverage for homes that aren’t insurable on the private market. One thing to note about FAIR Plans is they don’t cover losses like theft and water damage, and don’t provide any liability or medical payments coverage — but there are ways you can supplement that gap in coverage. Many Golden State residents, for example, have a California FAIR Plan and combine it with a “difference in conditions” (DIC) policy that fills in the aforementioned coverage gaps. FAIR Plans are not available in every state.

Learn more about homeowners insurance and wildfire damage here

Insurance Expert

Pat Howard

Insurance Expert

Pat Howard is an Insurance Editor at Policygenius in New York City, specializing in homeowners insurance. He has been featured on Property Casualty 360, MSN, and more. Pat has a B.A. in journalism from Michigan State University.

Policygenius’ editorial content is not written by an insurance agent. It’s intended for informational purposes and should not be considered legal or financial advice. Consult a professional to learn what financial products are right for you.

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