Wildfire Facts, Their Damage, and Effect on the Economy

•••  Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

The frequency of western U.S. wildfires has increased by 400% since 1970. California, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico experience the worst damage. These fires have burned six times the land area as before and last five times longer. Their fierce temperatures consume all nutrients and vegetation, leaving little to grow back. 

The other areas at risk are forests in Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia. Recent wildfire intensity and frequency are worse now than in the past 10,000 years.

The fire season itself is also two months longer than in the early 1970s, according to WXshift. That allows more time for fires to erupt. In California, wildfire season is now year-round. Since 2012, there has not been a month without a wildfire burning. Before then, fire officials could use the fall and winter to plan and regroup.

2016 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that climate change had doubled the number of acres burned since the mid-1980s. It does this by causing heat waves that dry out the forests.

2019 Fire Season

As of July 3, 2019, there were 20,038 U.S. wildfires. That's less than the 29,526 wildfires in the same period in 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. About 1.1 million acres were burned in the 2019 period, compared with 2.7 million in 2018.

In March 2019, record-high temperatures in Washington state created 50 wildfires. Meteorologists said this level of activity doesn't usually begin until August.

2018 Fire Season

In 2018, more than 58,083,000 wildfires burned 8.8 million acres. The Camp Fire in Northern California wiped out the town of Paradise. It killed 85 people, making it the deadliest in California history. Another 11 people are reported missing. The fire is also the most destructive. It burned 153,336 acres and destroyed 18,733 buildings. It was the world's costliest natural disaster in 2018 causing $16.5 billion in damage.

At the same time, the Woolsey fire burned 96,949 acres, threatening Thousand Oaks and Malibu. Three people died and 1,500 structures were destroyed. These two fires forced 81,000 people to leave their homes. They are living in temporary shelters, but more permanent housing solutions are rare in high-priced California. 

In August, at least 110 wildfires were burning almost 2 million acres. They require 28,250 firemen to combat them. At the same time, eight wildfires were burning across Colorado and six in Utah. The haze from the wildfires drifted to New York and parts of New England.

In July, the Mendocino fire became the largest in California history. It burned 459,123 acres. The Carr fire caused a firenado. The extreme heat at the fire's center created a wind shear that causes the air to spin. As of September 6, 2018, the damage was $845 million in insurance claims. 

2017 Fire Season

In 2017, there were 71,499 fires that burnt 10 million acres. It cost $2.9 billion to put them out, the most in history. The Thomas fire was the worst in California. It burned 283,800 acres in December. The Wine Country fires in 2017 cost $10.4 billion in claims.

Forest fires were so monstrous that they pushed smoke into the Earth's stratosphere. It circled the globe within two weeks and remained there for months. The impact is comparable to a moderate volcanic eruption. 

The deadliest wildfire in U.S. history was the 1871 Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin. It killed 1,500 people, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Economic Impact

In 2018, California suffered $400 billion in damage, according to Accuweather. It cost the California fire department $1 billion. Both are new records. 

In 2017, the U.S. Forest Service spent almost $2.9 billion to put out fires nationwide. That's more than the $2.1 billion spent in 2015. Firefighting consumed 52% of its budget. It leaves little for forest management, capital improvements, and research. At the peak of the season, more than 280,000 personnel and 1,900 fire engines were deployed. The Air National Guard had to help, dropping 530,000 gallons of fire retardant. 

The biggest reason for the cost increase is that fires are getting bigger. As of November 24, 2017, the average size was almost 175 acres. The prior record, in 2015, was slightly more than 140 acres. Before 2005, fires burned less than 100 acres.

In 2015, wildfires caused $14.3 billion in real estate damage. One reason is that 33% of houses are near a forest. They increase the cost of wildfire protection. 

A Rand study found that home-insurance premiums have risen in the state’s most fire-prone areas. The study estimated that the number of acres burned in the Sierra foothills will double in the next 30 years. It will quadruple by 2100.

The California utility Pacific Gas & Electric has filed for bankruptcy. It faced $30 billion in fire-related liability costs. Investigators found that old PG&E equipment caused 17 wildfires. It didn't keep up with maintaining thousands of miles of aging power line and trimming millions of trees in a service area larger than Florida. The company estimated it would cost between $75 billion and $150 billion to comply with a judge’s maintenance plan. To pay for the plan, it would have to increase rates by five times over a one-year period. It would have to remove 100 million trees on federal, state, and private property.

PG&E announced it could shut off power to up to 5.4 million customers when needed to prevent sparks. That's 10 times more than those affected by these "public-safety" shutoffs in the past. In December 2018, it shut down the aging Caribou-Palermo line responsible for the Camp fire.

Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurance firm, blamed global warming for $24 billion of losses in the California wildfires. It warned that insurance firms will have to raise premiums to cover rising costs from extreme weather. That could make insurance too expensive for most people.


There are five reasons for the growing severity of wildfires. They are rising temperatures, shorter winters, more pests, drought, and fire suppression. The first four are caused by climate change.

Rising temperatures increase evaporation. The atmosphere draws more moisture from soils, making the land drier. For example, Redding, California, experienced 14 days of triple-digit temperatures before the Carr fire struck. But even if the soil is moist, heat waves can dry out vegetation enough to create flammable tinder. Wildfires are driven more by the temperature and moisture content in the air than by the moisture content in the soil. Scientists thought that wildfires were strictly a function of drought. 

Shorter winters mean there is less snow. That releases a smaller amount of melting snow in the spring. That also dries the soil and vegetation. 

A shorter winter also means that many pests, such as the pine bark beetle, don’t die off in the winter. As a result, they are killing and weakening millions of trees. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 100,000 beetle-infested trees fall daily. This level of damage has never before been seen in U.S. recorded history. It provides dry fuel for forest fires.

Drought is a reduction in precipitation over an extended period. It’s most people's biggest climate change worry, according to a Pew Research Study. In 2012, more than 80% of the United States experienced abnormally dry conditions.

Climate change creates more severe droughts through a vicious cycle. Greenhouse gas emissions trap heat, causing air temperatures to increase. The hot air absorbs more moisture, resulting in less rain. Hotter air also increases evaporation from lakes and rivers, reducing water sources. Without rainfall, the plants that retain moisture in the soil die. The bare earth creates even drier conditions. When it does rain, water just runs off without absorbing into the water table. Dead vegetation, warmer air, and decreased rainfall also increase the frequency and severity of wildfires.  

In the 1880s, foresters in the Southwest and California encouraged more young trees similar to forests in the East or in Europe. They allowed ranchers' livestock to overgraze the grass to eliminate the source of ground fires and allow more seedlings to survive. The forests grew unnaturally dense.

In the 1920s, foresters put out fires and allowed even more trees to grow. But there weren't enough nutrients to support them, so they grew thin and weak. Bark beetles took advantage of the weak trees, killing them. As a result, forest fires grew monstrous on the dense, dry wood. 

Wildfire Forecast

The National Climate Assessment predicted that the number of wildfires “is projected to further increase as the climate warms.” They warned this could create “profound changes to certain ecosystems.”

For example, Alaskan tundra and forest wildfires would increase under warmer and drier conditions. The result would be "a fire regime unprecedented in the last 10,000 years." The scientists predict that the total area burned would increase between 25% and 53% by 2100.

The study predicted that wildfires in the Greater Yellowstone will greatly increase by 2050. Years without large fires will become extremely rare. In the West, fires greater than 50,000 acres will increase. An additional 1.9 million acres of land could burn each year by 2100. Even the Southeast will start to see an increase in large wildfires.

Wildfires increase greenhouse gases as the fires burn carbon stored in the trees and plants. For example, forest fires in Indonesia in 2015 released twice as many greenhouse gases as Germany emitted in 2014. Once destroyed, those trees are no longer around to absorb carbon dioxide from the air.

By 2030, the United States will be measurably drier. By 2050, the American Southwest and Great Plains will experience a megadrought, according to scientists at Cornell University. The drought will last 50 years. It will be similar to droughts that occurred in the region during the 12th and 13th centuries, but it will be entirely man-made, a consequence of global warming.

By 2030, wildfires could destroy 55% of the Amazon rainforest. That's in addition to the 20% that's already been destroyed. The Earth will lose a large part of its ability to absorb greenhouse gases.

Solutions to Wildfires

Government policies can solve the short-term wildfire problem. In forest fire regions, there should be no planting of easily flammable tree species such as eucalyptus and pine. For example, Portugal suffered tremendous wildfires after it allowed farmers to plant fire-prone eucalyptus to replace fire-resistant cork oaks.

Governments should not allow human development in pristine forests. New forest roads increase the likelihood of human-caused fires.

Medium-term, governments can promote policies that conserve water. These include waste-water recycling, desert landscaping, and low-flow appliances. They should also reverse subsidy policies that encourage thirsty crops like cotton. Instead, they should direct subsidies toward crops like prickly pear.

Foresters should allow loggers to thin the forests, removing spindly and weak trees. The largest, sturdiest trees should remain to provide seeds for future generations. These trees will survive weaker fires, as they had for centuries before humans managed the forests. On December 21, 2018, President Donald Trump issued an executive order expanding logging on government grounds by 31%. But loggers could just remove the big trees and leave the smaller ones.

Long-term, the government must stop climate change to reduce wildfires. Nations must cap the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the Earth's atmosphere. Once that is done, carbon emissions trading can encourage businesses to adhere to the cap. A  carbon tax can punish them if they do not.