The 2020 wildfire season in California killed more than 30 people, destroyed some 8,500 structures, and torched a record-breaking 4 million acres of land—double the acreage burned in 2018, the state’s second-worst wildfire season on record.
But the total cost of wildfire extends well beyond these three metrics, starting with the money it takes to contain or suppress the fires—a figure that has grown significantly over the past three decades. There are also less quantifiable metrics that may be even more costly: disruptions to business, taxes, and tourism; residents left with soaring medical bills; and polluted air, soil, and waterways.
Federal wildfire suppression costs in the United States have spiked from an annual average of about $425 million from 1985 to 1999 to $1.6 billion from 2000 to 2019, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. State suppression costs have also risen; in California, the average annual suppression cost has nearly doubled over the past decade compared to the previous one, reaching about $400 million. The most recent CAL FIRE data available suggests the agency was on pace to spend nearly $700 million on suppression for the 2019/2020 fiscal year. “All this money spent on suppression means less money for prevention efforts, which is key to addressing the problem of wildfire losses,” says Michele Steinberg, director of the Wildfire Division at NFPA.