Wildfires in the West

Jennifer Pullen, Senior Research Economist

Pinpoint Shadow  Wildfires in Arizona and the Western United States: Assessing Social and Economic Impacts

Nationally, nearly 100,000 structures were destroyed by wildfires between 2005 and 2022, according to data published by Headwater Economics. The number of structures destroyed varied significantly from year to year depending on the severity of the fire season. Each year, wildfires result in an untold number of fatalities, evacuations, injuries, and devastated communities. We often hear the number of acres burned when wildfires are discussed on the news. However, that number doesn’t always capture the impact of wildfires from the community perspective, particularly the social, economic, and psychological impacts. Headwater Economics tracks the number of structures destroyed by wildfires as a broad measure of these community impacts. As Figure 1 illustrates, nearly 25,000 structures were destroyed nationally in 2018.

Figure 1: Structures Destroyed by Wildfire by Year

Why Is it Important?

Headwater Economics data shows that structure losses due to wildfires are increasing. As wildfires increase in severity, frequency, and duration, they become more damaging and costlier. Wildfires are more common in the West, with eight of the last ten fires with the most structure damage occurring in California. While the majority of fires happen in the West, the rest of the nation is not immune, with two of the most structurally destructive fires occurring in Tennessee and Texas between 2005 and 2022.

While this article highlights data from Headwater Economics on the economic and social impacts of structure damage due to wildfires, it is important to note that a much larger discussion on wildfire management is necessary. Some wildfires have important ecological benefits for our forests. Further information and links to data on wildfire management techniques can be found on Headwater Economics. An article from Nature highlights the importance of tracking the number of lives and homes lost as a better way to assess and manage fires.

How Do We Compare?

In Arizona, between 2005 and 2022, there were 69 wildfires that destroyed 963 structures. The single most destructive fire in Arizona between 2005 and 2022 was the Yarnell Hill fire in 2013, which destroyed 114 structures. (Table 1). 

Table 1: Top 10 Wildfires in Arizona by Number of Structures Destroyed 

Fire Name Year Structures Destroyed
Yarnell Hill 2013 114
Tinder 2018 96
Monument 2011 84
Wallow SWAC 2011 72
Wallow 2011 68
Wallow North 2011 65
Tunnel 2022 54
MARGO 2021 43
Telegraph 2021 41
Goodwin 2017 33

In Arizona, the year with the largest number of structures destroyed by wildfire occurred in 2011, followed by 2013. Figure 2 highlights the total number of structures destroyed by year for each of the 10 western states and the nation. Click on/off each geography to view the number of structures destroyed. 

Figure 2: Structures Destroyed by Wildfire by Year

According to the US Forest Service, in 2020, damages from wildfires totaled $16.5 billion in the United States, with more than 10,000 structures damaged or destroyed in California alone. While we have yet to find data on wildfire costs related to structure damage per year and by state, several studies have analyzed individual fires. The 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire in Arizona resulted in direct costs (loss of homes and property) of $122.5 million dollars. To read more about this case study and others that detail the cost of wildfire from the watershed, ecosystem, infrastructure, business, individual, and economic perspective, visit the article published by the Bureau of Land Management.