Over the past few years, wildfire activity has become increasingly intense in the United States. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that there are approximately 70,000 wildfires in the U.S. each year, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that climate change has been a key driver in the increased risk and extent of wildfires occurring in the western U.S. over the past two decades.
More recently, the combination of persistent heat and drought has been blamed for the extreme wildfire seasons that occurred in the western U.S. between 2020 and 2022. Each of these three years saw more than 1.2 million acres burned, surpassing the annual average.
Homeowners living in areas where wildfires are a threat need to be aware of the common causes of wildfires and the dangerous conditions they create. It's also critical to understand whether insurance covers wildfire-related damages and how to prepare yourself, your home and your family.
What Causes Wildfires?
Lightning is the number one natural cause of wildfires. Although less common, it’s also possible for wildfires to be linked to meteors and volcanic activity.
Sadly, however, data show that 85% of wildfires across the United States are caused by humans. This includes negligently discarded cigarettes, unattended campfires, equipment malfunctions, burning debris and intentional arson.
Where Do Wildfires Occur?
The majority of wildfires in the United States occur in California. In 2022, the state had 7,667 wildfire incidents. These resulted in nine fatalities, 876 damaged or destroyed structures, and nearly 364,000 acres of land burned. This was actually a decrease from 2021 when the state experienced 9,280 wildfires.
In addition to California, other states saw significant wildfire activity in 2021. Following is a list of the top 10 impacted states for 2021, ranked in order of the number of wildfire instances:
- California - 9,280
- Texas – 5,576
- North Carolina – 5,151
- Montana – 2,573
- Florida – 2,262
- Oregon – 2,202
- Georgia – 2,139
- Minnesota – 2,065
- Washington – 1,863
- Arizona – 1,773
Does Insurance Cover Wildfires?
If your home, vehicle or personal belongings are damaged by a wildfire, your insurance policy may cover it. For example, a standard homeowners insurance policy covers the structure of your home if it is damaged or destroyed in any type of fire, including wildfires. This coverage typically also includes the cost to rebuild or repair your home, remediate smoke damage, and repair or replace outbuildings located on your property, such as a toolshed or a garage.
Your homeowners or renters insurance policy also covers your personal belongings if they are damaged by a wildfire. In addition, these policies often cover items that have been stolen or vandalized, which may be the case if there is looting in the wake of a wildfire. Your homeowners insurance policy may also cover the cost of replacing shrubs or trees that were damaged by the fire.
If your home is so severely damaged that it's not inhabitable, your renters or homeowners insurance will typically reimburse you for the additional living expenses (ALE) that you incur. This includes expenses such as the cost of staying in a hotel room and the extra expense of dining out while your home is being rebuilt or repaired.
If you purchased the optional comprehensive coverage as part of your auto insurance policy, any wildfire-related damage or vandalism should be covered.
How to Prepare for a Wildfire
Taking steps to prepare your home and your family ahead of time is key to staying safe during the wildfire season. If you haven’t already done so, you can start by downloading the FEMA app. This app provides real-time weather alerts, helps locate nearby emergency shelters, and can also send notifications to loved ones.
Next, take steps to strengthen your home by creating a fire-resistant zone that extends at least 30 feet from the structure. Keep this area free of debris, leaves and other flammable materials. Also, make sure you have an outdoor water source and hoses that can reach any area of your property.
In addition, it’s important to know your evacuation zone, learn the local evacuation routes, and practice with your household. Create an emergency plan so everyone in your household knows exactly what to do if you have to evacuate on short notice. Make sure you have a backpack or duffle bag filled with enough basic supplies for your household, including food, water, a flashlight, extra batteries, a first aid kit and backups of necessary medications.
Finally, review your insurance policies to confirm that you have proper coverage. Store these and other important documents in a secure, password-protected digital space that you can easily access from any location. This will allow you to quickly process an insurance claim, even if you’re not able to return to your home right away.
What to Do if a Wildfire Occurs
If you are in an affected area when a wildfire occurs, pay attention to all emergency alerts and notifications. Evacuate immediately if you are instructed to do so and do not return to your home until you’re officially notified that it's safe.
If you’ve suffered damage, document it with photographs. Create an inventory of items that have been damaged or destroyed, then reach out to your insurance provider for assistance with filing your claim.
While we hope you never have to deal with a dangerous wildfire, taking these simple steps to prepare now can help keep you, your loved ones and your property safe if the unthinkable occurs.