According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 4 million acres of land were burned by 47,000 wildfires in 2013. However, this was not especially large in the grand scheme of things. During 2012, more than 9 million acres burned, making it the third most intense year for wildfires since federal officials began keeping records in 1960.
The number one and number two years for wildfires were 2006 and 2007, respectively. During the past decade, more than 59 million acres have burned in wildfires, and from 2004 to 2012, more than 13,000 primary structures were lost as a result of wildfires and house-to-house ignitions. It is possible that the higher totals reported in recent years reflect more accurate assessments of the total impact of wildfires.
However, it is clear that weather patterns play a role in determining the frequency and severity of these incidents. For example, the droughts that have plagued large parts of the country in recent years may be making wildfires more likely in many states. High winds and other factors that contribute to soil erosion and the drying out of regional vegetation can also help set the stage for a wildfire.
Which states experience the most wildfires?
Chubb Insurance compiled data from the National Fire Protection Association, National Interagency Fire Center and U.S. Forest Service to identify the five states that experienced the highest number of wildfires during 2013. California had by far the most wildfires, with a total of 9,907. The next highest was North Carolina, with 3,514. Georgia and Oregon each reported about 2,900 and Arizona came in fifth with 1,756.
How do wildfires start and spread?
These blazes often begin in a secluded area, where they go unnoticed until they have grown to a size that makes containment difficult. Because fires in sparsely populated areas are less likely to be detected, residential properties in woodlands and rural areas can be especially vulnerable to wildfires. It is also typically more difficult for emergency response services to reach outlying homes.
Properties in more developed areas can also be placed at risk, as flames can spread quickly from one structure to another in the right conditions. According to the National Association of State Foresters, wildfires pose a risk to more than 72,000 communities in the United States today.
What can be done to manage the risk?
Chubb offers a number of tips for homeowners concerned about their exposure to wildfires, from construction, maintenance and landscaping to last-minute actions that can be taken when a wildfire is already approaching. For example, using flame-retardant materials during construction can help reduce a structure's susceptibility to wildfires. Keeping the roof and gutter free of flammable debris is important, and homeowners should always avoid storing large quantities of firewood adjacent to the house. Ensuring that vent openings are screened off and areas underneath raised decks are enclosed can also help by preventing burning embers from blowing in.
Given the widespread risk posed by wildfires and the extensive damage that they can cause to residential properties, insurers also need to do their part to be prepared for these events, by aligning their policies with up-to-date property valuations.