Wildfires: More Frequent and Severe Due to Climate Change and Worsening Drought

Wildfire Safety: Protecting Property and Preventing Losses

Read how severe drought can lead to more wildfires and significant property losses.
Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons, Head of Large Property, The Hartford
Severe drought conditions, high temperatures and dry conditions are increasing wildfire risk in a majority of the U.S. – putting buildings and property in danger of damage and loss.
Much of the West and South U.S. are experiencing varying drought intensities, from severe to exceptional levels. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the high drought levels can have short- and long-term impacts on:
  • Agriculture
  • Grasslands
  • Hydrology
  • Ecology
The record heat in 2021 was damaging, particularly in the West and Pacific Northwest.
The increase in drought severity, coupled with what appears to be a longer wildfire season, is worrisome. But there are wildfire safety measures property owners can take to help protect their assets.

What Is a Wildfire?

Wildfires are unplanned fires that burn in:1
  • Forests
  • Grasslands
  • Prairies
Wildfires are dangerous because they spread quickly and can burn large amounts of land. Homes, buildings and property damaged from wildfires are typically total losses.

A Look at Wildfires Through the Years

As of June 2022, there have been over 32,200 wildfires and more than 3.3 million acres burned in the U.S.2
In 2021, there were 58,985 wildfires, which burned over 7.1 million acres in the U.S.There were nearly 40 “significant incidents” that burned over 40,000 acres of land in 2021, with losses ranging from $1.4 million to over $637 million.One source estimates wildfires caused nearly $1.5 billion in property damage.5
What’s causing these wildfire incidents? One factor is drought. In fact, drought levels in the western U.S., paired with heat waves during the summer months, brings the threat of wildfires earlier than expected.

How Do Droughts Impact Wildfires?

With severe drought levels, it creates an environment that can easily ignite and burn. Dry landscapes and climates fuel wildfires and help them spread and burn.6
Over the past two decades, drought conditions in the western U.S. have gradually gotten more severe. When you consider that only 2% of the western U.S. was in extreme or exceptional drought before the 2020 wildfire season, it causes concern for 2021.
The lack of rain in 2021 with a dry spring, dry summer and dry fall meant wildfires were a constant hazard with an extended fire season. Rain could also turn the wildfire burn scars into mudslides, putting property at risk.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, parts of the western, southern and central U.S. are still in severe or extreme drought as of June 2022. This includes:
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Kansas
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • Nuevo México
  • Oregon
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Wyoming

Drought Conditions From 2000 to 2021

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Over the past two decades, drought levels in the West have gotten more severe. This creates an environment that's dry and makes it easier to ignite and burn, causing wildfires that can rapidly spread.

Drought conditions for the year: 2000
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Use the slider below to see how drought conditions across the United States have increased since 2000.
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No Drought Exceptional Drought

The U.S. Drought Monitor is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the Univeristy of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Maps courtesy of NDMC.

Drought, Wildfires and Commercial Property Losses

Drought levels may not have been high in years where there was a large amount of property damage from wildfires. For example, 2017 had the most property damage and losses, but drought that year wasn’t too severe.
This can be because of the location of wildfires, how close it is to a populated area, wind conditions and whether the wildfire was due to human cause or lightning. Lightning sparked wildfires are usually more devastating than fires caused by humans.
With the western U.S. dealing with severe drought for most of 2021, experts are concerned about the amount of property damage and losses.
Early estimates of commercial property insured wildfire losses in 2021 were over $336 million.7 This number is likely to increase as losses are finalized and made official.
For perspective, commercial property insured losses in 2017, 2018 and 2020 were very high. In 2017, property loss totaled $4.2 billion.8 For 2018, losses were valued at nearly $2 billion and in 2020, property losses came to $2.5 billion.9, 10
It’s clear that losses from wildfires and other natural disasters are becoming more frequent. Insurance companies pay attention to these trends, especially the underwriting phase of issuing a new policy or the renewal process. Due to these loss trends, insurers are risk sharing with customers, which can include a higher all other perils (AOP) deductible.

Are Wildfires Affected by Climate Change?

Climate change acts as an “accelerant” to wildfires. The U.S. Drought Monitor states that the last 12 months contributed to the fast intensification of the drought. As the west dealt with heat waves, the typical rain season that would cool off the region didn’t bring enough rainfall.
Growing evidence from researchers and experts show climate change is increasing weather volatility, making storms and natural disasters more frequent and severe. While wet seasons can help plants and vegetation grow, landscapes can quickly dry out and increase the risk of a wildfire if there’s a severe drought.

What Are Some Safety Tips for Wildfires?

Although wildfires generally cause total losses to property, there are wildfire safety measures you can take.
Having a disaster plan is essential in protecting property from wildfires and damages. The written plan should tell employees and even customers what to expect. If you don’t have a disaster plan, it’s not too late to create one.
Here are some key things you may want to include:
  • Step-by-step instructions to minimize risk
  • Directions for how to protect employees and property
  • An evacuation plan
  • Emergency numbers
  • A designated crisis team
If you must close and evacuate your company because of a wildfire, a disaster plan can help with business continuity. Keep critical documents stored in a safe that’s resistant to fire or keep it stored off premises. Equally important, be sure to backup copies of your data.
If your business is in an area prone to wildfires, including information on wildfire safety and preparedness in your plan is critical.
You can also make building improvements, such as:
  • Installing smoke detectors and automatic fire sprinklers in every building
  • Connecting a fire alarm to a central station or local fire department
  • Using window drapes with fire-retardant chemicals
  • Putting mesh covers over exterior vents, around decks or attic openings to prevent outdoor embers from going inside the building
  • Ensuring emergency vehicle access to your business’ property
1 Ready.gov, “Wildfires”
2 National Interagency Fire Center, “Statistics”
3,4 National Interagency Fire Center, “Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics Annual Report: 2021”
5 CNBC, “Natural Disasters Hit Roughly 1 in 10 American Homes in 2021”
6 National Integrated Drought Information System, “Wildfire Management”
7, 8, 9, 10 Losses reported by ISO Property Claims Services
La información proporcionada en estos materiales brinda información general y de asesoría. It shall not be considered legal or medical advice. The Hartford does not warrant that the implementation of any view or recommendation contained herein will: (i) result in the elimination of any unsafe conditions at your business locations or with respect to your business operations; or (ii) be an appropriate legal or business practice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for the control or correction of hazards or legal compliance with respect to your business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute our undertaking, on your behalf or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that your business premises, locations or operations are safe or healthful, or are in compliance with any law, rule or regulation. Readers seeking to resolve specific safety, legal or business issues or concerns related to the information provided in these materials should consult their safety consultant, attorney or business advisors. All information and representations contained herein are as of July 2022.
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