Wildfires destroy thousands of structures each year

16 November 2020

Published by https://headwaterseconomics.org/

USA – Since 2005, more than 89,000 structures have been destroyed by wildfires resulting in an untold number of fatalities, evacuations, and personal losses. The number of structures destroyed, rather than the number of acres burned, is a more telling measure of the broad social, economic, and community impacts from wildfires.

Methods and data sources

Wildfire structure losses are increasing

In 2020, wildfires burned and damaged nearly 17,700 structures making it one of the most destructive wildfire seasons on record. While much attention is given to the size of a fire (8.6 million acres in 2020) this figure fails to capture the true scale of human impact and devastation. More telling numbers include the number of homes lost, people evacuated, and human fatalities.

From 2005 to 2020, wildfires have destroyed 89,210 structures, including homes and businesses. Across the country, the most damaging wildfire seasons have been in recent years, including 2017, 2018, and 2020, accounting for 62% of the structures lost over the last 15 years.

By far, the most structure losses have been in California, with eight of the top 10 most destructive wildfires and more than half of all U.S. wildfire losses—nearly 60,000 structures—occurring in the state. In 2018, the Camp Fire burned more than 18,800 structures and resulted in 88 fatalities. Together with the Woolsey and Carr fires, more structures were lost to wildfires in 2018—22,867 structures in California and 24,488 total in the country—than in any other year in reported history.

After California, more structures have been lost to wildfires in Texas than any other state. Since 2005, more than 5,200 structures have been destroyed by wildfires in Texas with 60% of the reported structure losses occurring during especially extreme conditions in 2011. The Bastrop County Complex fire for example, burned 1,709 structures and killed four people before being fully contained.

In recent years, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado have also experienced significant structure losses from wildfires. In 2020, more than 3,800 structures were destroyed in Oregon—compared to the 532 structures cumulatively lost in Oregon from 2005 to 2019—particularly impacting the communities of Ashland, Phoenix, Talent, and Medford in the state’s southern Rogue Valley region.

Wildfires are widespread across the country and nearly every state has experienced structure losses as a result. Oklahoma for example, routinely experiences fast-moving grassland fires and since 2005, more than 1,750 structures have been destroyed. In Florida, nearly 1,200 structures have been destroyed by wildfires and in Tennessee, more than 2,000 structures were destroyed in the Chimney Tops 2 fire in 2016.

A better measure of wildfire impacts

For too long, acres burned has been the primary measure of a wildfire’s impact. And while important from an operational perspective, this figure falls short of measuring the diverse social, economic, health, and psychological impacts from wildfires.

Moreover, focusing exclusively on the size of wildfire overlooks the important differentiation between “good” and “bad” wildfires. Fire is a necessary ecological process and provides crucial ecosystem benefits. Large low-severity wildfires burning where there are no homes can rejuvenate forests and replenish soils, while small high-severity wildfires that escape mitigation and suppression efforts can result in tragic outcomes. Wildfires need to burn on many of our landscapes and allowing more good wildfires reduces the likelihood that bad wildfires will occur.

As a society, much of how we understand wildfires is in how the data is interpreted and communicated. To start, we need to do a better job of accurately messaging wildfire trends, risks, and impacts by using the right metrics. Citing acres burned may be appropriate for land management decision-making but reporting the number of structures and lives lost to wildfires contextualizes the profound impacts felt by communities.

Secondly, we need to do a better job of accounting and standardizing structure loss data. Across the board, there is a dearth of publicly available data regarding the number of structures, fatalities, and community assets destroyed by wildfires every year. Recognizing the gap, government agencies, research institutions, universities, and other groups are improving the methodical tracking and reporting of this valuable information (see St. Denis, L. et al. 2020). However, much work remains to standardize this information so that it is readily accessible to policymakers.

Wildfires are burning thousands of structures each year and the trends will likely increase in the future. To accurately convey the scale of wildfire risks and impacts at the community level, we need to focus on the numbers that tell that story.

Methods and data sources

Consistent, standardized data accounting for structures destroyed by wildfire have been lacking in the United States. While incident commanders complete an Incident Status Summary (ICS-209 form) for large or destructive wildfires, the forms have not been compiled into an accessible database and have been difficult to use.

To build this visualization, we used the best available data from two federal sources. First, wildfires from 2005-2019 are from National Fire and Aviation Management FAMWEB. FAMWEB provides the ability to download ICS-209 reports by year and Geographic Area Coordination Center. Due to changes in data reporting, fires before 2005 were not included.

FAMWEB data required some cleaning. Redundant incidents and incidents other than fires were removed. In some cases, meaningful incident names were added and, where missing, the year field was populated. Incident data reported for 2006 in Alabama was inconsistent with the rest of the data, appeared to be duplicative, and was excluded from the visualization. (This included two incidents: “End of Year” with 88 structures and “year to date losses” with 85 structures.)

Second, wildfire data for 2020 are from the National Interagency Fire Center’s Incident Year-to-Date Report as of November 9, 2020.

Data Limitations

Although they are the best available data, ICS-209 records tend to be inconsistent and lack standardization. Due to wildfire reporting practices, not all fires are captured in this visualization and the number of structures destroyed is likely an undercount. In addition, state agencies and FEMA often conduct their own damage assessments, which can have different tallies than the incident reports.

The data included here do not differentiate between types of structures. Therefore, structures included in this visualization may include homes, commercial buildings, and outbuildings.

Data for the 2020 fire year are current as of November 9, 2020 and do not reflect structure losses after that date.

Additional resources

Many researchers are working to make structure loss data more consistent and accessible. Researchers at CU Boulder (St. Denis et al. 2020) have mined the US National Incident Management System from 1999-2014 and cleaned incident reports. Their data is open source and available.  The Fire Modeling Institute at the USDA Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station has mapped structures lost to wildfire from 1999-2016. CalFire also maintains an incident database with summaries of structures destroyed by year. To understand, explore, and learn more about how to reduce wildfire risks and related structure loss, visit Wildfire Risk to Communities.

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