Special Report

25 Counties Devastated by this Year's Wildfires

With at least two more months remaining in the Western United States’ wildfire season, this year’s forest fires have already broken records. Four of the five largest wildfires in California’s history occurred in 2020. One of these fires, North Complex, which in August blazed through Butte, Plumas, and Yuba counties, is among the top five deadliest, most destructive, and largest fires in the state’s history. Click here to see the most destructive wildfires in the U.S. this century.

To find the counties devastated by this year’s wildfires, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the total acres burned in each county so far in 2020 in relation to the county’s total size. Data on total acres burned came from the Wildfire Perimeters and Archived Wildfire Perimeters shapefiles published by the federal wildland firefighting coordination group National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). Data on county geographical size came from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Fourteen counties on this list are in California, three are in Oregon, another three are in Washington, two are in Idaho, and one is in Arizona. Here is the worst natural disaster in every state.

A combination of climate change-related severe drought conditions over the past decade and poor land management largely contributed to this year’s unprecedented wildfire season. 

Higher temperatures and less precipitation in the Western U.S. stemming from over 100 years of climate change produced higher frequency of heat waves, less snow melt to replenish groundwater, and more severe drought conditions. Together, these factors helped form perfect conditions for wildfires. 

Over the course of California’s five-year drought that started in December 2011, an estimated 150 million trees in the central and southern Sierra Nevada mountains were left dead and drying. In a 2018 report, University of Berkeley fire scientists highlighted the importance of forest management for long-term adaptation to climate change:

“The scale of present tree mortality is so large that greater potential for ‘mass fire’ exists in the coming decades, driven by the amount and continuity of dry, combustible, large woody material that could produce large, severe fires.”

Forest fires are normal occurrences in the Pacific Northwest, and managing forested land for the risk of wildfires is not a new practice. Research from historical journals, Native American oral histories, and botanical and forestry studies have shown evidence of controlled burns and land management practices by humans for more than 10,000 years. 

Click here to see the counties devastated by this year’s wildfires
Click here to read our methodology