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Western wildfires are increasingly destroying structures, analysis shows

A bird’s eye view of homes burnt to the ground by a wildfire in a neighborhood. Several trees and shrubbery are blackened throughout the composition.
Scorched homes in Louisville, Colo., from the 2021 Marshall Fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 structures.

A new analysis shows that the number of homes, businesses and other structures destroyed by wildfires is rising around the West as fires grow in severity and frequency.

Headwaters Economics, a non-profit research group based in Montana, published an interactive data tool that shows the number of structures lost in every state from 2005 through June 2022. New Mexico saw 2,000 structures destroyed by wildfires, with nearly half of those burned this year.

In Wyoming and Colorado, about half of the damage during that time frame has come in recent years. Wyoming lost more than 600 structures in 2020. Colorado lost more than 1,000 in last year’s Marshall Fire – the most destructive in the Mountain West to date.

Headwaters’ Kimiko Barrett, who authored the report, says the amount of acreage burned is often the statistic that overshadows lost structures, which include homes, commercial buildings and outbuildings.

“The true impacts felt at the ground level is important for policy conversations because it brings in the human dimension in a way that examining acreages burned does not,” Barrett said.

In all, 2,475 U.S. wildfires have destroyed 97,196 structures since 2005, according to Headwaters. The most destructive year was 2018, when 24,488 structures were lost. More than 75% of those were destroyed in Northern California’s Camp Fire.

Barrett says other wildfire metrics that need to be considered are hospital admissions, insurance submission claims and lost business revenues. That data, she adds, is much more difficult to capture.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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