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U.S. States Most Impacted by Wildfires

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

By David Heacock

Wildfires have ravaged the American West in the recent past. Of the 10 costliest wildfires on record, only two occurred prior to 2017, according to the Insurance Information Institute. And this year is shaping up to be more of the same. When considering total acres burned, 2020 was very close to being the most destructive wildfire year on record; and as of the start of summer, 2021 is on pace to exceed last year’s numbers.

The defining wildfire event of 2020—the August Complex Fire—was started by a series of Northern California lightning strikes, and quickly became the largest wildfire event in the state’s history. While California gets much of the attention for wildfires, several other states have been severely impacted as well. Behind California’s 4.1 million acres burned in 2020 were 1.1 million acres in Oregon, almost 1 million acres in Arizona, and 842,000 acres in Washington.

Nationwide, the number of acres burned each year over the past 15 years is up considerably compared to the same timeframe prior to 2005, even though the number of fires has noticeably declined.

While lightning is an obvious cause of wildfires, the National Park Service has attributed nearly 85% of wildfires to human activity, including campfires, debris fires, powerlines, electrical malfunctions, cigarettes, and arson. When assessing the damage done by wildfires, though, lightning-caused fires have historically been more destructive. Data from the National Interagency Fire Center shows that lightning accounted for the great majority of burned acres since 2001, though there have been several years where more land area was burned by human-caused fires, including 2020.

The severity of wildfires is largely affected by climate conditions, and in 2021, several western states remain trapped in a persistent “megadrought.” Large portions of the region—including parts of Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oregon—face “exceptional” levels of drought, which is the U.S. Drought Monitor's most severe category.

Based on recent trends, California has been the state most threatened by wildfires, as 40% of all burned acres last year fell within its borders. California also had the most properties at risk of wildfire damage by a significant margin. Its 2 million at-risk properties was nearly three times as many as the 718,000 in Texas, 371,000 in Colorado, and 238,000 in Arizona, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

However, wildfires affect each state differently. More sparsely populated states like Montana and Idaho, for example, have only the fifth-highest and ninth-highest number of properties at risk for wildfire damage, yet those properties represent between a quarter and a third of all properties in the state, whereas only 15% of properties in California are estimated to be at risk.

To determine the impact that wildfires have had on various states, researchers at Filterbuy compiled data from the National Interagency Fire Center and the U.S. Census Bureau for 2020, then ranked states by the total number of acres burned. Related data included in the analysis were the total number of fires, the burned acreage as a proportion of the state’s total land area, and human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage.

Here are the 15 states that were hit hardest by wildfires last year.

U.S. States Most Impacted by Wildfires in 2020

  1. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Florida

    • Total acres burned: 99,413
    • Total number of fires: 2,381
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 0.29%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 57.7%
  2. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Oklahoma

    • Total acres burned: 102,302
    • Total number of fires: 1,241
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 0.23%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 100.0%
  3. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    New Mexico

    • Total acres burned: 109,513
    • Total number of fires: 1,018
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 0.14%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 14.3%
  4. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Alaska

    • Total acres burned: 181,169
    • Total number of fires: 349
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 0.05%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 0.2%
  5. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Texas

    • Total acres burned: 256,826
    • Total number of fires: 6,713
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 0.15%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 71.3%
  6. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Nevada

    • Total acres burned: 259,275
    • Total number of fires: 770
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 0.37%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 28.7%
  7. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Idaho

    • Total acres burned: 314,352
    • Total number of fires: 944
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 0.59%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 75.4%
  8. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Utah

    • Total acres burned: 329,735
    • Total number of fires: 1,493
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 0.63%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 32.1%
  9. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Wyoming

    • Total acres burned: 339,783
    • Total number of fires: 828
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 0.55%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 85.4%
  10. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Montana

    • Total acres burned: 369,633
    • Total number of fires: 2,433
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 0.40%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 59.5%
  11. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Colorado

    • Total acres burned: 625,357
    • Total number of fires: 1,080
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 0.94%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 71.6%
  12. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Washington

    • Total acres burned: 842,370
    • Total number of fires: 1,646
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 1.98%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 99.4%
  13. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Arizona

    • Total acres burned: 978,568
    • Total number of fires: 2,524
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 1.35%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 36.2%
  14. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    Oregon

    • Total acres burned: 1,141,613
    • Total number of fires: 2,215
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 1.86%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 59.5%
  15. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

    California

    • Total acres burned: 4,092,151
    • Total number of fires: 10,431
    • Burned acreage as a proportion of total land area: 4.10%
    • Human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage: 57.8%

Detailed Findings & Methodology

The data used in this analysis is from the National Interagency Fire Center and the U.S. Census Bureau. To determine the states most impacted by wildfires, researchers ranked them by total acres burned in 2020. In addition, researchers included the total number of fires in 2020, burned acreage as a proportion of the state’s total land area, and human-caused fire acreage as a proportion of total fire acreage.