This blog is a part of our series, “Perspectives in Crime” where we explore leading academic studies that touch on crime data.

The United States of America experiences about 70,000 wildfires a year. Traditionally, the wildfire season was considered the summer months, but experts now warn of wildfire risk that spans the entire year. For instance, the Marshall Fire, a drought-driven grass fire in December of 2021, became Colorado’s most destructive fire in history, burning over 1,000 buildings.

Wildfires occur in the confluence of four factors: droughts, appropriate weather conditions, fuel sources, and a source for ignition. Approximately 85% of wildfires are caused by humans, in many cases by unattended cigarette butts, improperly extinguished campfires, burning of debris, and, in rare cases, arson.

Regions susceptible to wildfires experience a blend of conditions that foster fire: high temperatures, dry conditions, and fierce winds. Extended periods of drought and higher than average temperatures heighten fire risk.

The devastating impact of wildfires

The impact of wildfires extends beyond immediate destruction. Local landscapes are dramatically transformed, leading to long-term ecological consequences like erosion and habitat loss. Populations face displacement and health issues from inhaled smoke. Local economies suffer from damage to infrastructure, insurance payouts, and firefighting costs; tourism and agricultural sectors can also suffer significant losses.

In addition to the danger to life and property, the negative impacts of wildfires can be felt at greater distances in their impacts to air quality and the supply chain.

Chart 1 below shows the count of annual fires from 1983 through 2022. Although 1983 and 1984 each had fewer than 25,000 fires, the numbers increase drastically starting in 1985. While 1996 and 2006 were clearly peak years, with nearly 100,000 fires each, the numbers have not gone below 50,000 fires per year since the mid-1980s.

Bar chart showing the count of annual fires in the United States, 1983-2022.
Chart 1

How wildfires have changed

Though actual counts of wildfires have remained largely level to prior years, they have become more destructive in terms of damage.

Chart 2 below shows the total burned acreage by year, from 1983 through 2022. It shows how the amount of damage has increased over the past few decades.

Bar chart showing the amount of wildfire damage by acreage in the United States, 1983-2022.
Chart 2

The wildland urban interface (WUI) is defined as the transition area of developed land and residential housing with natural vegetation and wilderness. The proportion and population of WUI has changed dramatically in recent years. The size of WUI in the United States increased by 33% from 1990 to 2010, and the number of homes located in WUI has increased by 41% in the same time span.

This change in residential living makes for a more destructive fire season. Northern California’s 2017 Tubbs Fire burned much of the same area as the 1964 Hanly Fire. The Hanly fire was a significantly larger fire and burned 84 structures and produced no fatalities, while the Tubbs fire destroyed over 5,600 structures and took 22 lives.

Travel times for fire fighters are 20%–40% higher in WUI, which contribute to increased losses:

  • Dollar loss is estimated at 12% higher for structure fire events in WUI than in urban areas
  • Civilian death rates are 20% higher in WUI structure fires
  • Firefighter injury rates are 14% higher in WUI structure fires

The expansion of WUI has made wildfires more costly, dangerous to human life, and more difficult to fight.

Chart 3 below shows how the cost of US wildfire supression increased, 1985-2021.

Bar chart showing the cost of wildfire supression in the United States, 1985-2021.
Chart 3

Pinkerton services can help mitigate the risks of wildfires

Pinkerton services are designed to help save lives during crises and help organizations make decisions even in the face of rapidly changing risk. Pinkerton has helped many organizations, including medical and residential facilities, navigate through highly destructive wildfire seasons. By establishing direct lines of communication with local law enforcement and fire, and partnering with fire command centers, clients can be kept up to date with accurate information as the situation develops, instead of waiting idly by and trying to interpret news reports and social media posts. (Read more: Using Data to Mitigate Wildfire Risk and Drive Down Business Impact.)

Our portfolio of crisis response services and risk governance programs helps firms anticipate and prepare for disaster scenarios to maintain the strongest business continuity possible.

Published August 14, 2023


Analysis of NFIRS Incidents in the Wildland Urban Interface – An analysis of California NFIRS Data, 2009-2011. National Fire Data Center. 2021. 

Keeley, J.E., Syphard, A.D. Twenty-first century California, USA, wildfires: fuel-dominated vs. wind-dominated fires. fire ecol15, 24. 2019.  

National Interagency Fire Center data. 2023. 

Pausas, J G, and Keeley, J E. “Wildfires and global change.” Front Ecol Environ 19(7): 387–395. 2021.