Wildfire Season May Cost $150 Billion, Forecaster Says

Economic Impact May Rival Some of Costliest Natural Disasters

Homeowners survey their property in a neighborhood destroyed by wildfire on September 13, 2020 in Talent, Oregon. Hundreds of homes in Talent and nearby towns have been lost due to wildfire.
••• David Ryder/Getty Images

The economic cost of the 2020 wildfire season could reach $150 billion, rivaling some of the costliest natural disasters to hit the U.S. in the last 40 years, predicts one weather forecaster.

The cumulative economic impact, including physical damage, will be $130 billion to $150 billion, according to Joel Myers, president and founder of Accuweather, a media company that employs more than 100 meteorologists. 

“It certainly ranks up there with some of the most damaging hurricanes in our history,” Myers said in an interview. 

The estimate is based in part on a long-range prediction that seasonal autumn winds in the Southwest will whip up even more fires over the next few months, and last longer into the year than normal, Myers said. The wildfire season has been severe already, with 6.7 million acres burned so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). As of Tuesday, firefighters were battling 87 large active fires in 11 states, with the bulk of the activity in California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, the NIFC said.

An economic toll of that magnitude would rival the impact of Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane ranked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as the second-costliest weather-related disaster in the past 40 years—after Hurricane Katrina. Harvey, which hit the Gulf Coast in 2017, is estimated to have caused about $131 billion in damage; Katrina, which struck in 2005, cost $170 billion.

Broad Economic Costs, Including to Health

Myers’ estimate factors in physical damage to homes and businesses, wage losses, agricultural losses, infrastructure damage, and the cost of power outages, as well as economic losses stemming from things like evacuations, flight cancellations, and increased insurance premiums. 

It also takes into account the health effects of smoke from the forest fires, which has caused the air quality in much of the West to deteriorate. Respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and COVID-19 are all made worse by air pollution from the fires, Myers said.

NOAA’s ranking of costliest disasters, in contrast, doesn’t take into account health care costs or some other indirect effects, or the cost to natural assets. 

Indeed, insurers are bracing for record damages from the wildfires. Insured losses this year could rival or even surpass the record-breaking years of 2017 ($15 billion) and 2018 ($18 billion), according to Mark Friedlander, spokesman for the Insurance Industry Institute, citing the magnitude of the property damage in California, Oregon, and Washington.

Insured losses are typically a fraction of the total financial harm caused by natural disasters. For example, insured losses for Harvey were estimated at $30 billion, according to an analysis by Swiss Re.