Wildfires 101: Know the Basics
Every year wildfires sweep the country, wreaking havoc and destruction on towns, offering only a glimpse of warning. As neighborhoods, towns and school systems are consumed in mere minutes, American lives take an unexpected turn. According to NBC, the North Bay wildfires in California during October of 2017, forced nearly 600 schools to close. This left 260,000 students temporarily out of school.1 While many of these students are well versed in advanced math equations, all it took was a simple formula to create the powerful wildfire that attacked their school.
Wildfires ignite with a formula known as “the fire triangle,” which involves the combination of fuel, oxygen and a heat source.2 For wildfire prone states, this combination is all too common. For example, in the arid heat of Southern California, The Santa Ana winds gust over the landscape drying out vegetation, creating a perfect fuel source for fire. The winds also provide oxygen to open flames while transporting them at efficient speeds.3 So, what causes that first spark of a wildfire? There are multiple ignition sources that start as small threats and grow into devastating outcomes.
What Causes Wildfires
Although considered a natural disaster, about 60 percent of fires in national parks are started by people.4 Also, a recent study found that 84 percent of wildfires in general are started by people.5 Common ignition sources for wildfires include:6
- Unattended campfires
- Equipment failure and engine sparks
- Burning debris
- Burning cigarettes tossed on the ground
- Arson attacks
- Target shooting
- Compromised power lines
- Volcanic eruptions
How to Prevent Wildfires
Most ignition sources can be prevented, with the exception of lightening and volcanic eruptions. Easy ways to prevent wildfires include:7
- Calling 9-1-1 or the local fire department if you see an unmanned or out of control fire.
- Never leaving your own fire unattended. Be sure to completely put the fire out with water. Before leaving the campsite, stir the ashes and make sure they are cold.
- Taking precautions when using fueling lanterns, stoves or heaters outdoors.
- Never throwing cigarettes or matches from moving vehicles. Before throwing cigarettes out make sure they are put out completely. Also, make sure children never play with matches.
- Following local codes for burning yard waste. Do not burn yard waste in windy conditions. A shovel, water source and fire retardant should be kept near the fire at all times.
- Teach kids about preventing fires. Consider participating in The Hartford’s Junior Fire Marshal® program (JFM). Since 1947, JFM has being teaching fire prevention and safety to children across the nation and has deputized more than 110 million Junior Fire Marshals.
Sometimes, all the precautionary measures in the world are not enough. Mistakes slip by or Mother Nature decides to show her wrath through lightning strikes. Whatever the cause, stopping the fire is the priority.
How Wildfires Are Stopped
Firefighters, especially in wildfire prone states know what to do. They know the procedures and are ready to take action. Their plan usually incorporates these elements:8
- Positioning firefighters and fire trucks on the ground to battle the flames.
- Removing vegetation with chainsaws and axes to minimize fuel for the fire. This creates a fire line that acts as a barrier to block wildfire advancement.
- Dropping water from helicopters. These helicopters can carry as much as 800 gallons of water.
Prevention starts with people cracking down on each other. All it takes to save homes, schools and community buildings from destruction is one moment of recognition. The more a community recognizes wildfire causes and prevents them, the safer everyone will be, including firefighters.
1 “California Receives $14 Million Grant for Schools Affected by Wildfires,” Bay City News, May 1, 2018, https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/California-Receives-14M-Grant-for-Schools-Affected-by-Wildfires-481420261.html
2,3 “Learn More About Wildfires,” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/natural-disasters/wildfires/
4 “What’s The Leading Cause of Wildfires in the U.S.? Humans,” National Public Radio (NPR), February 27, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/27/517100594/whats-the-leading-cause-of-wildfires-in-the-u-s-humans
5 “Human-Started Wildfires Expand the Fire Niche Across the United States,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), March 14, 2017, http://www.pnas.org/content/114/11/2946
6 “Causes of California’s Worst Wildfires: Power Lines, Lightning, Arson, More,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 2017, https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Causes-of-California-s-worst-wildfires-power-12294852.php
7 “Learn Wildfire Safety Tips,” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/natural-disasters/wildfire-safety-tips/
8 “It’s Not Just Spraying Water: How the Pros Fight Wildfires,” CNN, December 9, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/12/09/us/wildfire-fighting-tactics/index.html