Climate Change

Do humans or lightning cause more wildfires in the US?

Most wildfires in the US have been triggered by natural causes such as lightning.

Most wildfires in the US have been triggered by natural causes such as lightning. Image: Unsplash/Nikolay Maslov

Gilbert Fontana
Data Analyst, Visual Capitalist
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Climate Change

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Wildfires can be triggered by natural causes or human activity.
  • Those caused by lightning have historically led to more damage in the US, especially in the West.
  • But fires caused by humans have resulted in more damage in recent years.

Comparing Lightning-Caused and Human-Caused U.S. Wildfires

Each year, thousands of acres of land are scorched by wildfires across the United States. While most of these fires are triggered by natural causes such as lightning, some are unfortunately caused by human activity.

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This graphic by Gilbert Fontana uses data from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) to show the number of acres burned across the U.S. between 2001 and 2021.

In 2020, there were 5,998,813 acres burned in human caused wildfires.
In 2020, there were 5,998,813 acres burned in human caused wildfires. Image: Visual Capitalist

Historically, we can see that lightning-caused fires have led to more damage in the U.S., and this is especially true in the West region which includes states like California, Oregon, and Washington.

That said, it’s worth noting that in three out of the six years from 2016–2021, human-caused wildfires led to more damage.

Wildfire causes in the U.S. between 2001-2021
Wildfire causes in the U.S. between 2001-2021 Image: Visual Capitalist
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