Follow Insights Blog


CoreLogic Econ


Wildfire in 2015: Can Prior Years Tell Us What to Expect?

Tom Jeffery    |    Natural Hazard Risk

The past two years did not result in the amount of wildfire activity that many wildfire scientists, foresters and fire responders had expected. Looking back, the 2013 season had all the earmarks of a bad year, with the continued U.S. drought and related accumulation of dry fuels. The 2014 season saw an enhancement of the drought in many areas and even more trepidation about the potential for a spark that would ignite massive firestorms similar to or even greater than the huge blazes in southern California in 2003 and 2007. And while there were wildfires in 2013 and 2014, they never came close in in total size or number to the fires that were anticipated for those years. So what happened, and what can we expect in 2015?

The two metrics most commonly used to look at wildfire activity are the number of fires and the total size of the area burned. In 2013, there were 47,579 wildfires in the U.S. that consumed a total of 4,319,546 acres of land.1 These figures account for the fewest number of fires and the fifth lowest acreage since 2000.1 Then last year, we saw a total of 63,312 fires and 3,595,613 acres burned.1 These numbers represent the second fewest total fires in the last 15 years and also the third lowest amount of burned acreage looking back over the same time period1. It would appear to be contradictory to have such low wildfire activity during years in which record setting drought was common throughout nearly all of the Western U.S., and while there is no “smoking gun” to identify the cause of this reduced activity, there are a couple of factors likely to have contributed.

One factor is the obvious issue of fire response. From post-fire media articles, it was clear that response to even small fires in the Western states was in many cases overwhelming in 2013 and 2014. By dedicating as much equipment and personnel as quickly as possible to fight new fires, it helped to reduce the overall size and effect of these blazes, and in many cases, prevented them from damaging homes. Another factor playing a critical role in wildfire reduction would be the positive effect of property owner mitigation. In many regions, homeowners in areas of elevated wildfire risk are working to reduce the opportunity for wildfires to migrate onto their property. This ranges from simple tasks like clearing brush, to more expansive undertakings such as reroofing your home, and many other options in-between. Mitigation has gained a larger following due to the efforts of Firewise and other such entities and agencies that are promoting proactive ways to reduce wildfire impact.

In looking back over the historic wildfire totals for the U.S., the number of fires and the areas they consume do not necessarily have a strong positive correlation. In fact, based on the data in Figure 1, it would appear that they often work independently of each other.

A search for the clues as to what criteria or characteristics illuminate the potential for property damage from wildfires, really does discount both total fires and acreage burned. In 2003 for example, there were approximately the same number of fires and acreage burned in the U.S. as there was in 2014.1 Yet in 2003, there was more than $2.5 billion in property damage from just two fires, the Old Fire (San Bernardino County) and the Cedar Fire (San Diego County).2 And if we look at the year of the Oakland Fire (1991), there were fewer than 3 million total acres burned in the U.S. that year, but yet a single wildfire in the Bay area of California caused approximately $1.5 billion in property damage (1991 dollars), which would be nearly $2.6 billion in today’s dollars.2

Wildfire Interface with Urban Areas

Wildfire Interface with Urban Areas

If the overall number of fires and the total acreage burned is not indicative of the amount of property damage that can occur, what factor(s) are? The answer to that is pretty much the same as it would be for any natural disaster which is that hail storms, hurricanes, floods and fires all have a geographic footprint. And where that footprint falls in relation to the population is the driving factor in determining property damage. For example, a single 5,000 acre fire located on the edge of the city of San Diego could cause tremendous damage to dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands of the homes and businesses located in that area, whereas a 200,000 acre fire in an uninhabited area of Idaho may have virtually zero impact on residential properties. It appears that this is just a statement of the obvious, but it is often overlooked when we see the figures related to natural hazards. The discussion of fewer hurricanes or earthquakes really doesn’t mean much when it only takes one such event in the wrong place (ala Superstorm Sandy) to wreak havoc on the local population and begin tabulating damages in the tens of billions of dollars. The same is true of wildfires. Even though 2013 had the fewest wildfires over the course of the last two decades, the Colorado residents who lost homes in the June 2013 Black Forest Fire (El Paso County), which destroyed or damaged more than 500 homes and is the most destructive fire in Colorado history, do not see 2013 as a low impact year for wildfires.3

What is important to consider with all hazards, including wildfire, is that last year’s numbers or the decade average—or any such tally—does not accurately indicate the potential damage for the present or upcoming year. The most accurate method of determining risk from these hazards, alternatively, is to evaluate the risk on and around your property, and to prepare for the coming year with the understanding that these events will happen in the future as they have in the past. Maybe not every year or even this year, but then again, that is the great unknown. Relying on the knowledge of where wildfires can occur instead, will help homeowners prepare for the unknown of when they will occur.

[1] National Interagency Fire Center, 2015.

[2] National Fire Protection Association, 2015. 

[3] Denver Post, “Black Forest fire caused $85 million in damage to homes, assessor says”, July 9, 2013.

© 2015 CoreLogic, Inc. All rights reserved