Wildfires are a complex phenomenon that involves the interconnection of climate, weather, land use, and urban sprawl as well as concerns of racism, equity and inclusion.

The fires that happen around the world now are unlike the fires of 1992, 1972 or 1952. Fires are burning faster and hotter than ever before, and complex socio-economic factors are resulting in more people being affected by the effects of smoke, debris flows and other wildfire effects. It is becoming more common for areas to suffer a subsequent catastrophic wildfire before recovering from an earlier wildfire.

In the United States, wildfires, mostly in the western part of the country, have scorched an average of almost 7.5 million acres, an area larger than the size of the entire state of Hawaii, annually between 2011 and 2021, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. 2021 was no exception with 7.1 million acres burning.

Canada saw an average of 6.5 million acres (2.6 million hectares) burned between 2011-2020, however, the 2021 fire season saw over 10.6 million acres (4.3 million hectares) go up in flames.

Wildfires are a global problem – and one which threatens every part of the world. According to the European Forest Fire Information Service (EFFIS), its 43 member countries (including some in the Middle East and Northern Africa) saw an average of more than 1 million acres (424,000 hectares) burned every year between 2010 and 2019. Countries such as Croatia, the Netherlands, Poland and others where wildfires have been historically low are seeing significant increases in both fire numbers and burned area and in 2020 these countries all saw fires consume more than double the average area. While statistics are not as easy to find for other countries, places like Russia have seen massive fires that spread across the formerly frozen arctic tundra, while Australia regularly sees catastrophic bushfire seasons such as the 2019/2020 season that destroyed more than 10.6 million acres (4.3 million hectares).

But wildfires cause more than just destruction of forests, land and buildings. The effects of wildfires pose significant risks for historically marginalized and excluded groups of people. Those with breathing problems are at risk due to increased particulates in the air from wildfire smoke. Children are particularly vulnerable due to their developing respiratory systems; one study estimates that 7.4 million children in the United States are affected by wildfire smoke annually. Those who have disabilities and functional needs, are living in poverty, or experiencing homelessness in addition to medical problems are often unable to evacuate or relocate without assistance.

Hazardous conditions do not stop once the wildfire is out. Areas that were destroyed during a wildfire are often at increased risk of flooding and mudslides, which can be filled with the remnants of trees and other materials that can cause additional damage. The smoke that permeates the air during a wildfire is often filled with toxic chemicals – remnants of burned cars, household appliances, batteries, paint, etc. Following the fire, these toxins remain in the water and the soil.

Key Facts

  • Humans cause nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the United States through unattended campfires, burning of debris and agricultural land, electrical lines, and arson. Most of these can be considered accidental or unintentional, but there is an increasing need for education, awareness and monitoring of human activities to reduce the risk of wildfires. One exacerbating factor in the growth of wildfires is an increasing wildland-urban interface or human development near wild lands. The expanding interface not only makes human-caused wildfires more likely; it has the potential to make fires both more damaging and deadly.
  • Wildfires are both an effect, and a cause, of global climate change. As the average temperature increases, wildfires are increasing in both frequency and intensity, but they are also contributing to climate change themselves. The EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) estimated that global wildfires in 2021 generated 148% more carbon emissions than all of the fossil fuel emissions in 2020.
  • The areas in which wildfires are prevalent are changing. According to a report issued by the United Nations Environment Program, “current models suggest that some areas, such as the Arctic, are very likely to experience a significant increase in burning by the end of the century. Areas of tropical forest in Indonesia and the southern Amazon are likely to see increased burning if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate.”
  • Countries that have histories of wildfires are seeing changes in the behavior and intensity of wildfires. According to the United Nations, Australia’s 2019-2020 Black Summer wildfires were largely caused by lightning, however, they were difficult to suppress because of an extended drought that depleted the moisture in the fuels and the fires grew much faster in size and intensity due to severe winds.
  • Historically marginalized and excluded groups are some of those most affected by wildfires in the U.S. In particular, Latinx people are twice as likely to live in areas threatened by wildfires when compared to the overall U.S. population.
  • FEMA provides Fire Management Assistance Grants to state, local and tribal governments for the mitigation, management and control of fires. The grants award 75% of the need and require the states to fund the remaining 25%. In some cases, this is a significant burden to state budgets. Eligible firefighting costs may include expenses for field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; tools, materials and supplies as well as mobilization and demobilization activities. FEMA also provides a Hazard Mitigation Grant Program – Post-Fire Program to “help mitigate wildfire and related hazards by funding eligible wildfire project types like defensible space measures, ignition-resistant construction, and hazardous fuels reduction.”
  • FEMA Individual Assistance and Insurance payouts are no longer sufficient to cover the costs of rebuilding homes destroyed in wildfires. FEMA authorized $1,941,911.30 for Individual Assistance to 943 approved applicants for the Middle Fork and Marshall Fires in January 2022. That means that the average payment received from FEMA was just over $2,059 per application. According to information from State Farm, the average paid wildfire claim in the United States in 2021 is $224,000 – a far cry from the average home sale price of over $450,000 in 2021.
  • More than 71.8 million homes across the United States were exposed to wildfire risk in 2022. Of these homes, 4.2 million had 26% maximum cumulative burn probability – meaning they were most likely to burn in the next 30 years. Perhaps more importantly, the study by the First Street Foundation found that the total number of homes at risk is expected to increase by over 11% by 2050 because of climate change.
  • Farms and farm workers – many of whom are undocumented or temporary workers – are among the most affected by wildfires. Most farms were not built to withstand wildfires and their buildings may pose a significant fire risk because of age and construction materials. Millions of dollars of crops, buildings and other resources can be lost in a fast-moving wildfire and many small or new farmers are unable to get sufficient insurance. In addition, because most farm work takes place outside, people working on farms are at a much higher risk of smoke inhalation and exposure to toxic ash than others.

How to Help

To bring immediate relief to fire-ravaged areas and to support long-term prevention and recovery efforts, donors could:

  • Award loans and grants for rebuilding damaged homes and businesses. Currently, through the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, there is a $2 million cap on disaster loans for businesses or private, nonprofit organizations. That amount may not cover what is needed and monies that are allocated may be slow to arrive.
  • Support Indigenous-led initiatives to mitigate, prepare, respond and recover from wildfires. Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by wildfires and must be included in initiatives related to their communities. An excellent example is the University of British Columbia’s Indigenous Research Support Initiative Wildfire Housing Project which aims to design and build post-fire housing using local lumber, local skills and designs that are specific to the needs of the Yuneŝit’in community.
  • Support local agencies on the ground throughout the disaster life cycle, especially ones that work with at-risk populations. Those in already precarious situations—including historically marginalized and excluded populations such as Black, Indigenous and Latinx people, older adults, undocumented and mixed-status families, people with disabilities and functional needs, and people living in poverty—may find their circumstances worsened in the face of disaster.
  • Fund drought mitigation efforts. These may focus on sustainable agriculture, water conservation or even land use. An emerging area for research, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, is land use patterns that “maintain the integrity of watersheds and that have a smaller paved footprint result in greater resilience in the face of drought.”
  • Invest in public awareness and educational campaigns as well as dissemination of promising practices in wildfire and drought mitigation. Simple efforts such as clearing flammable materials from 100 feet around the house may help prevent property damage. Fires can also be started by misuse of equipment, such as grills, that can be averted with proper knowledge.
  • Assist businesses in developing business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR) plans to reduce economic impact. These plans should include contingencies for displaced workers, backup of data and alternate facilities for continuing operations in the event of property damage.
  • Consider the needs of volunteer fire departments. As volunteers, they often lack the structural support of larger departments and their resources may have been depleted during the wildfire.
  • Support the creation of “smart growth ” efforts. Smart planning can help mitigate wildfires or prevent them all together. Efficient land use, effective urban planning and updated housing codes are all examples of smart growth efforts to mitigate the effects of wildfires and possibly prevent them.

What are funders doing?

  • The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) has four funds that support wildfire recovery. Our California Wildfires Recovery Fund provides funds for work in California, while the Colorado Wildfires Recovery Fund does the same in Colorado. Wildfire recovery in other parts of the United States is through our Disaster Recovery Fund, while international wildfire recovery is funded through our Global Recovery Fund.
    • CDP gave a grant worth $135,409 to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) through the Global Recovery Fund. In partnership with Caritas Hellas (CH), the national Caritas in Greece, CRS will provide social services and psychosocial support to 2,000 people affected by the 2021 wildfires. CRS and CH will also partner with community-based associations to implement community-led recovery activities, and train them in disaster risk reduction and crisis management to mitigate future risks and benefit the broader community.
    • CDP gave a $150,000 grant to La Familia Sana through the California Wildfires Recovery Fund to provide group and individual mental health counseling to members of the Latinx community who have been devastated by the loss of income due to wildfires and the cascading impacts of stress, depression and anxiety arising from concerns over necessities such as food security, housing, health and the effects on family life. Unresolved mental health issues that arose from past fires are exacerbated by the current extreme drought and fears of fires.
    • CDP gave a $108,708 grant to Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery through the Disaster Recovery Fund after the 2020 wildfire season to cover operational expenses. Funding allows for disaster case management and volunteer coordination and addresses unmet needs for those communities most affected by this substantial complex fire.
    • CDP gave a $250,000 grant to The National Fish and Wildlife Federation from the Colorado Wildfires Recovery Fund to help communities restore natural resources, particularly river and stream corridors; water quality and essential wildlife habitats significantly affected by the 2020 Colorado wildfires. It will include areas in Grand County damaged considerably by the East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires. The project will also assist in preparation and mitigation efforts in other areas of western Colorado currently without active forest management activities.
    • CDP awarded $1.19 million from the Global Recovery Fund to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for long-term recovery efforts following the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires. This gift, CDP’s largest international grant, focuses on wildlife and environmental restoration and addresses needs and gaps in the recovery, mitigation and prevention processes that are the most significant and most profound.
  • The International Community Foundation gave a $5,000 grant to the International Foundation for the Community in Tijuana, Mexico for disaster relief from fires in 2020.
  • The BHP Foundation donated $1.37 million ($2 million AUD) to the Australian Red Cross after the 2019-2020 bushfires to support emergency relief efforts to bushfire impacted regions around Australia. The Foundation’s donation will help the Australian Red Cross provide immediate support through evacuation centers, psychological first aid and emergency assistance.
  • The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation gave $599,500 to Conservation X Labs to support open innovation to source and build communities of solvers who blend traditional knowledge, science, and technology to address wildfire challenges in large, low-resource environments.

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(Photo: Damage in a Paradise, California neighborhood following the 2018 Camp Fire. The blaze is the deadliest to ever hit the state, killing at least 88 people and burning more than 18,000 structures. Source: U.S. Air National Guard, Senior, Airman Crystal Housman CC BY 2.0)