The average annual acreage burned by wildfires in the United States has increased over the past 30 years, affecting both federal and nonfederal lands. In this report, the Congressional Budget Office analyzes trends in wildfire activity; considers the effects of wildfires on the federal budget, the environment, people’s health, and the economy; and reviews forest-management practices meant to reduce the likelihood and seriousness of fire-related disasters.
These are the major findings from the analysis:
- About 8 million acres, on average, burned each year in wildfires between 2017 and 2021, more than double the average amount from 1987 to 1991. On average, a fire on federal lands is five times the size of one on nonfederal lands.
- Average annual federal spending on fire suppression totaled $2.5 billion (in 2020 dollars) between 2016 and 2020. Other federal fire-related spending includes disaster assistance (which totaled $5 billion of obligations for disasters declared over those five years) and some indirect costs (such as spending on health care following smoke exposure and the potential loss of revenues from federal timber sales).
- Environmental, health-related, and economic effects of wildfires are felt most acutely in the immediate area. Smoke and air pollution from wildfires spread widely and can exacerbate many health conditions. Wildfires also tend to have negative effects on watersheds.
- Managing forests can reduce the risk and severity of wildfires, according to research. Techniques to do so include setting prescribed fires, managing wildfires in remote areas, and mechanically thinning forests to reduce the density of vegetation and different types of fuel in a forest. The cost to implement those strategies varies by landscape and by treatment required.