Fewer Wildfires Are Causing More Damage in U.S.
With more people settling into the Western United States, hundreds of thousands of homes are at risk of being lost to wildfires, a new report finds.
The report by financial services company CoreLogic evaluated the risk to residential properties of exposure to wildfire in the states that experience the most wildfire activity, primarily in the Western U.S. Because of both state size and population density, the report found residents in California and Texas to be at highest risk of property loss and consequently reconstruction costs.
“The high density of homes located in areas that are susceptible to wildfires and the continuing expansion of development into lands prone to wildfires only increases the threat of future catastrophic events and the possibility of billion-dollar losses,” the report said.
“Wildfires in the Western United States have always been a part of the ecosystems and landscape. Prior to human habitation, lightning strikes often caused naturally-caused ignitions,” the report said. “However, the population of the Western United States now tops 100 million and the potential impacts of wildfires on humans and humans on wildfires are inextricably linked.”
More acres are burning annually in the 21st century than in years past, the report said. Between 1964 and 1999, the number of acres lost to wildfire never exceeded 7 million per year, whereas 11 of the years since 2000 have seen more than 7 million acres burned annually, with 2015 and 2017 both experiencing about 10 million acres burned.
California (1,823,153 acres burned), Nevada (1,001,966) and Oregon (897,262) experienced the highest numbers of acres burned in 2018, according to the report. In total, more than 8.7 million acres burned that year – “roughly equivalent to the area of 74 of the 75 largest cities in the United States combined,” the report said.
Eleven of the 15 states with the most acres burned by wildfire in 2018 exceeded their average annual numbers of acres burned, according to the report. Alaska, Arizona, Florida and Montana were the states in the top 15 that witnessed fewer acres burned in 2018 than usual.
Nearly 34,000 wildfires have burned 4.1 million acres so far this year as of Sept. 3, according to a wildfire statistics report released by the Congressional Research Service. Echoing the CoreLogic report, the CRS report stated that, while more fires burned in the 1990s, the average number of acres burned every year since 2000 has been nearly double the average acreage burned in the ’90s.
“Over the past 10 years, there were an average of 67,000 wildfires annually and an average of 7.0 million acres burned annually,” the CRS report said. “In 2018, 58,083 wildfires burned 8.8 million acres nationwide, the sixth-largest figure on record in terms of acreage burned.”
The CRS report noted that looking only at the number of wildfires and acres burned may mislead the danger, as “many fires may occur in areas that are large and relatively undeveloped, with very little impact to human development or communities.” Still, statistics that document the level of destruction a wildfire causes – from the number of acres burned to lives lost and structures destroyed – can be useful in illustrating “past U.S. wildfire activity” and determining the strategies and resources put toward wildfire management.
“Although wildfires may have a beneficial impact on ecological resources, wildfires also may have a devastating impact, especially for those communities affected by wildfire activity,” it said.
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