America’s drought-fuelled fire season: “Unyielding, unprecedented, costly”

Extreme Weather

America’s drought-fuelled fire season: “Unyielding, unprecedented, costly”

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Fourteen U.S. states were devastated by drought and fire with residents facing major insurance challenges.

As summer comes to an end in the northern hemisphere, experts are looking at the devastation and cost of an unprecedented summer of drought and fire. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that 46,091 wildfires burned a total of 5,907,288 acres in the U.S. so far in 2021, making it the sixth-highest year for both acres burned and number of fires nationally in the last decade. Drought is impacting up to 90% of the U.S. west with 14 states recording “severe” or “exceptional” conditions.  

California fires have burned more than 3,000 square miles so far in 2021, destroying more than 3,000 homes, commercial properties and other structures. Early fires that began in spring saw 9,279 fire incidents to December 2020 with more than four million total acres burned, 10,488 structures damaged or destroyed and 31 fire-related deaths. Research by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates the cost of droughts and wildfires in 2020 alone in California was between $10 and $20 billion

California’s Dixie Fire is likely to have topped one million acres scorched, what is known as a “gigafire,” the second in the state’s history. It raged across five Northern California counties for more than 60 days and was still not contained in mid-September. More than 1,300 structures were lost and the town of Greenville, north of Sacramento, was all but wiped out. 

NOAA described the most recent U.S. drought season of January 2020 to August 2021 as “unyielding, unprecedented and costly,” in its 2020-2021 Drought Task Force Report. The NOAA report focuses on six states of the Southwest –– Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and California. The average daily temperatures ranked the third-highest ever recorded and the area experienced the lowest amount of precipitation since 1985. The report clearly states that these extreme results are from “human-caused warming” and require immediate action to reverse warming trends. 

The average daily temperatures ranked the third-highest ever recorded and the area experienced the lowest amount of precipitation since 1985.

“From January 2020 to September 2021, the 20-month period is the driest on record …” Andy Hoell, with the NOAA Physical Sciences Laboratory said. “It punctuates two decades of low precipitation.”

Risk Management Solutions, a risk solutions company, estimates that total insured losses from 2020 wildfires in the U.S. west will cost between $7 to $13 billion in damage. The destruction includes commercial and residential buildings as well as smoke damage. 

As if California needed another challenge, the state’s seemingly endless wildfires are forcing millions of homeowners in fire-prone areas to pay skyrocketing premiums for insurance — if, indeed, they can buy it at all. Residents of other fire-prone states are facing similar challenges as risk increases due to climate change. 

Outside of the physical damage of fires, they also impact wildlife, farming, human health and the economy. The tourism sector, already heavily impacted by the pandemic, saw fire and safety precautions take away hopes for an economic recovery this summer. California’s travel risks this summer became so high that the U.S. Forest Service temporarily closed all of the national forests in the state close to Labor Day weekend, traditionally one of its most lucrative tourist weekends. 

Even if dry conditions ease in the autumn months and in early 2022, experts say trends show an increase in all of the factors that set the region up for more drought, heat and fires in the future. 

“The official outlook is for below-normal precipitation and above-average temperatures for much of the American Southwest,” according to David Dewitt of the Climate Prediction Center.


Written by

Arielle Bader

Arielle Bader is a journalist and photographer whose work documenting the effects of climate change on communities has been published in The Washington Post, The New York Post, Washingtonian Magazine, CNN and The Tampa Bay Times. She has worked at AARP, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the Tampa Bay Times and the GW Hatchet. She is a recent graduate from the Corcoran School of The Arts and Design at George Washington University.