2021 wildfire season: AccuWeather estimates $70 billion to $90 billion in damages
This year's wildfire season unleashed yet another round of record-breaking blazes and widespread destruction, but AccuWeather experts say the economic damage estimate isn't like that of years past.
This year's wildfire season has been devastating, including the destruction of the town of Greenville, but experts say total losses pale in comparison to 2020, when hundreds of lightning strikes sparked massive fires.
There's no such thing as a friendly wildfire season. Each year, thousands upon thousands of structures are destroyed as flames scorch millions of acres, totaling billions of dollars of damage.
But after a run of multiple record-smashing wildfire seasons in the past decade, the 2021 season thus far has been as close as Americans have come to a reprieve.
While recent history has shown that the parameters of "wildfire season" can no longer be contained in a specific set of months, climatological trends suggest that the 2021 wildfire season is beginning to wind down as October gets underway, and the arrival of autumn signaling the start of lower temperatures and less explosive weather conditions.
AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers calculated the estimated damage impacts of the 2021 season, and according to his estimates, this year will be far less destructive than recent seasons.
“The total damage and cumulative economic loss for the 2021 wildfire season is expected to be between $70 billion and $90 billion in the U.S. with $45 billion to $55 billion of those damages to California alone,” said Myers.
Fire consumes a home as the Sugar Fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire, tears through Doyle, Calif., on Saturday, July 10, 2021. Pushed by heavy winds, the fire came out of the hills and destroyed multiple residences in central Doyle. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
The main drivers of that estimate in years past have included the number of structures burned as well as the value of those structures and other infrastructure damage. Other factors include the large costs incurred by widespread electrical system shutdowns by utilities and the long tail of health impacts to people from wildfire smoke.
“This estimate, which includes both insured and uninsured losses and the impact on the U.S. economy, includes damage to homes and businesses as well as their contents and cars, job and wage losses, farm and crop losses, infrastructure damage, auxiliary business losses, school closures and the costs of power outages to businesses and individuals,” Myers said. “The estimate also accounts for economic losses because of highway closures, evacuations and increased insurance premiums throughout the impacted states, firefighting costs, flight cancellations and delays and the current and long-term residual health effects on those impacted by dirty air.”
As of Oct. 1, wildfires have been responsible for destroying 6,000 structures in 2021, fewer than the 14,000 structures destroyed during the 2020 season. On top of that, six fatalities have been blamed on wildfires, compared to 47 for the entirety of the 2020 season.
The status of California wildfires as of September 30, 2021.
A total of 5.9 million acres of the western U.S. have been burned this year through September, nearly half of last year's total, which topped 10 million. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 46,190 different wildfires have blazed this year, including the Dixie Fire in Northern California, the largest single wildfire in U.S. history and second-largest overall, trailing only the 2020 August Complex fire.
As of the beginning of October, the Dixie blaze had consumed 963,309 acres and was 94% contained. It was also blamed for the death of one firefighter and the destruction of 1,329 structures since igniting in mid-July.
While AccuWeather experts forecast this year's total to approach 9 million acres by season's end, the impacts in states such as Colorado, Washington, Idaho and Oregon are not expected to get notably worse, a welcomed projection for the states that were struck severely a year ago.
One of the reasons last year's season was so historically awful was due to the widespread dry thunderstorm event in August in California. The repeated rounds of lightning strikes sparked numerous massive blazes near heavily populated areas.
Myers also added that gusty offshore California winds, which typically blow in September and October and continue into early December, have not been a major factor thus far in 2021.
However, that doesn't mean this season has been without its own unique headaches. The historic sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park's Giant Forest were covered with protective foil blankets to protect them from the wildfires. Air quality and smoke hazards have been a major concern for residents across the country due to this year's wildfires, as drifting smoke caused concerns in areas far from the West Coast.
"Once again, this year there were substantial air quality impacts from the smoke across the western U.S., perhaps a bit less than last year," AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jonathan Porter said. "But the smoke traveled farther to the East Coast on a few occasions this year."
Another significant factor that AccuWeather experts considered in the damage estimate was the impact on tourism. In the Lake Tahoe area, the massive Caldor Fire burned more than 220,000 acres and shut down access to the areas surrounding the heavily-visited lake, known for its beaches and resorts.
AccuWeather experts also warned that the wildfire season is far from over.
There are more fire dangers that still could be ahead, particularly due to the region's annually intense wind events, which could increase the chance for this year to feature another round of preventative power outages.
“AccuWeather anticipates the frequency of fires and related damage to increase, and the Santa Ana and Diablo winds will be significant factors in exacerbating fire events over the next two months in Southern and Northern California, respectively,” Myers said. “Thankfully, most of the damage so far this year has occurred in largely unpopulated areas, and there was very little activity in Colorado compared to seasons past, and the fire season in the Pacific Northwest has ended, which are all contributing factors to a much less destructive fire season overall in 2021 compared to 2020.”
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