How Are Wildfires Caused? 13 Things (2021) You Need To Know

Did you know that humans are the leading cause of wildfires?

As many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by people.

Human-caused fires result from campfires being left unattended, the burning of debris, power lines coming down, cigarettes being discarded, and intentional acts of arson.

What should you take away from this?

While fire can occur accidentally (10 percent of the time) through lightning or lava, it more often occurs as a result of human error and stupidity.

As a result, you should be especially cognizant of your role in wildfire risk and prevention.

Here’s what you need to know about how wildfires are caused and how you can prevent them.

1. What are wildfires?

Wildfires, also known as bushfires, are blazes that are uncontrolled and fueled by different types of weather, dry underbrush, and wind.

They result in hundreds of acres of land being burned as they can take over everything in their path in just a few minutes.

An average of 72,400 wildfires has cleared around 7 million acres of U.S. land each year since 2000.

This is due in part to increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Where can wildfires occur?

Wildfires can occur anywhere.

However, they are most common in forested areas of the United States, Canada, Australia, and the Western Cape of South Africa.

These climates are sufficiently moist to allow the growth of trees, but they also feature extended dry, hot periods, which can allow fires to ignite.

Grassland and scrublands are also common locations for fires.

During the year, fires are most likely to start during the summer and fall.

If a drought has occurred, fallen branches, leaves, and other material may make fires more likely as these items will dry out and become highly flammable.

3. How do wildfires start?

There are numerous ways that wildfires can start.

Here are the most common:

bulletHuman beings: Human beings are the number one cause of wildfires starting 90 percent of the wildfires in the U.S.

Both intentional and unintentional acts start wildfires.

Here are the man-made causes of wildfires.

1. Burning debris: Depending on your location, it’s fairly common to burn yard waste.

However, while it can be legal, it may cause fires when things get out of hand, or when winds spread flames from the burning debris into the forest, farms, or fields.

2. Unattended campfires: Camping is a perfect recreational activity.

Unfortunately, unattended campfires cause harm to the environment.

We recommend choosing a safe location for your campfire and making sure that it’s away from ignitable objects.

Also, stock your campfire with buckets of water and a shovel to ensure that you can put it out when you need to.

3. Equipment failure or engine sparks: A running engine spews hot sparks when things go wrong, which is why car crashes can often result in a fire.

4. Cigarettes: Have you ever seen someone driving in front of you throw their cigarette bud out of the window?

This small act of negligence has a huge impact on the environment and surrounding areas as it’s a common cause of wildfires.

5. Fireworks: You may love setting off fireworks for holidays and celebrations, but they can be dangerous in the hands of amateurs.

In truth, you should avoid fireworks if there’s even a small chance that they could start a wildfire.

6. Arson: Arson is the act of setting fire to property, vehicles, or any other thing with the intention to cause damage.

A person who commits this crime is called an arsonist.

Arson can account for approximately 30 percent of all wildfire cases, and it may be done by people to receive compensation for their own property.

In any case, it is extremely dangerous and causes great harm to the environment.

bulletMother nature: When it comes to wildfires, nature is much less problematic than humans.

Nature is only responsible for about 10 percent of wildfires in the United States.

So, while it’s far less common, it can still happen.

Here are the most common situations in which you will see wildfires start through natural means.

1. Lightning: Lightning, especially “hot lightning” can cause wildfires.

When it strikes, it often produces a spark that can set off a forest or field.

2. Volcanic eruption: When volcanoes erupt, hot burning lava can cause wildfires.

4. What are the effects of wildfires?

It’s critical to prevent wildfires because of their devasting effects.

Here are some impacts that may not immediately come to mind.

bulletWildfires take away homes, wildlife, and vegetation in an area

bulletWildfires destroy soil in an area by destroying its nutrients for good

bulletAnimals lose their lives and may be at risk for extinction

bulletTrees and plants, which help to produce oxygen for the planet, are destroyed

bulletWater that firefighters use to put out the fire can cause soil erosion

bulletAir pollution is caused by large amounts of smoke being released into the air

bulletHuman lives may be lost

bulletAsh and smoke can cause serious health problems to humans, especially those who suffer from allergies or other medical problems

bulletIncomes and jobs are lost for agricultural workers, which often causes the economy to suffer

bulletInsurance premiums will soar because people have to look for some type of coverage to prevent such devastating losses in the future

bulletRecreational areas will be off-limits until the area is cleared of debris and determined to be safe to inhabit or visit

5. What are the best solutions?

To help you take productive action in your community, here are all the best ways to prevent wildfires in your community.

bulletLocal rules and regulations: Make sure you follow all of the local laws and regulations regarding burning fires.

This includes the proper days and times of the year and the materials and substances that are permitted to be burned.

If you don’t see a sign with the rules, we recommend finding a park ranger or someone close by and keeping a list of rules and regulations on hand.

bulletWeather: Remain up to date on the weather forecast.

You should avoid burning substances when there are high winds or other risky conditions.

Certain areas are more prone to wildfires than others, and often those most at risk will have signs posted of their fire risk to put the community on notice.

bulletEasily controlled areas: Only light fires in areas that are easily controlled.

If you’re creating a fire, you want it to be done in an area that is controlled.

This way, the fire will not be spread into other areas.

If a dangerous situation arises, a fire will need to be contained and put out.

bulletOnly natural materials: Don’t burn any materials that are combustible or unusual in nature.

This includes garbage.

You should only be using materials that are organic, like leaves, wood, or yard waste.

If you put unusual materials into a fire, it is only going to make the fire spread rapidly, which will cause more problems for the area you’re in.

bulletCigarettes: Don’t smoke cigarettes where you’re not supposed to.

If you do smoke, put your cigarette out completely before disposing of it.

You should never throw your cigarettes on the ground.

Keep in mind that most camping and picnic areas don’t allow smoking so if you’re going to smoke then you need to know the rules beforehand and be prepared to abide by them.

bulletChildren: Teach your children the rules and safety precautions of camping.

Children should be taught to stay away from fires.

An adult should always be the one to start and put out fires.

This is critical as wildfires are often caused by unattended children.

6. Why do wildfires spread so quickly?

Conditions in the weather and environment are what allow fires to spread so quickly.

To grow, fires require fuel.

This fuel can come from overgrown forests and thick vegetation.

Certain plants, trees, and shrubs contain oil and resins that burn more quickly and intensely.

It can also come from the weather.

For example, drought, winds, and extreme heat can quickly create a faster, bigger, and more dangerous fire.

7. How does weather impact fires?

Weather drastically impacts wildfires.

When low rainfall causes a drought, temperatures rise, or wind increases, this is the perfect recipe for a wildfire.

The sticks, trees, and underbrush on the ground will first get hot from the sun and then get very dry.

As the temperature increases, these “fuels” can ignite.

Wildfires are most likely to rage in the afternoon when temperatures are at their highest.

8. How do you win against a wildfire?

In some ways, “winning” against a wildfire can seem difficult because you can’t control the weather.

However, winning often comes down to removing the fuel for the fire.

Fire experts utilize wildfire prediction tools that look at the wind speeds, slopes, fuel, and fire’s direction.

This helps them to figure out how to put out the blaze.

Firefighters will work to get hours or days ahead of the fire and remove anything in its path that will fuel it using bulldozers, tree harvesters, and hand tools.

When you create a fuel break (essentially a big trench), then you’re able to effectively suppress a fire.

9. When is a blaze considered “active”? When is it “contained”? When is it “out”?

A wildfire will go through several stages before it’s extinguished or out.

Any “active” blaze is one that is not declared “out.”

Firefighters will work to “contain” a fire by putting up physical barriers around it to prevent it from spreading past a certain point.

These physical barriers may be natural features that already exist in the landscape, such as rivers.

They can also be obstacles created by the firefighters, such as trenches.

A fire will be considered 100 percent contained when 100 percent of the fire is surrounded by a physical barrier.

However, the blaze is still expected to burn within the perimeter for days, weeks, or months.

If extreme weather occurs, then the fire could jump these physical barriers and break out of this containment.

Firefighters will also work to remove fuel from the fire’s path.

A fire is officially considered “out” when no hot spots can be detected within the containment lines for at least 48 hours.

10. What happens to people who cause wildfires?

The legal action taken against individuals who start wildfires (either intentionally or unintentionally) depends on where they live and the laws in place at those locations.

For example, in Washington state, the Department of Natural Resources must investigate all wildfires that occur within the areas that the agency oversees and recover fire suppression costs from responsible parties.

In the past, people have been charged with arson if they’re suspected of intentionally starting a wildfire.

The best way to avoid having to pay any wildfire suppression cost recoveries is to ensure your legal fire is completely extinguished before you leave it unattended.

11. Which U.S. states are most susceptible to wildfires?

When it comes to wildfires, some states are worse off than others.

Here are the top 10 states with the worst wildfire problem.

bulletCalifornia (#1)

bulletTexas (#2)

bulletArizona (#3)

bulletMontana (#4)

bulletFlorida (#5)

bulletNorth Carolina (#6)

bulletOregon (#7)

bulletNew Jersey (#8)

bulletGeorgia (#9)

bulletWashington (#10)

12. How are the threats of wildfires assessed?

Wildland fire managers assess the threat of human-caused fire to wildland and the threat of wildland fires to humans by asking two major questions.

bulletDoes the wildfire threaten people and/or their personal property?

bulletWhere is the wildfire located? (i.e., Is it located in a forest or grassland or a human-dominated landscape?)

These questions are critical as it helps to determine future action.

When people and property are threatened, efforts are then made to extinguish the fire.

However, in some locations such as large national parks and forests, a natural fire may be allowed to burn its courses.

Especially if it was started naturally by lightning, it may be assumed that the fire can benefit the ecosystem and that natural barriers will help to contain the fire within a specific area.

Wildland fire managers always seek to better understand wildfires.

By doing so, they can assess and plan for potential desirable and undesirable effects.

While wildfires cannot always be predicted, their impacts can be mitigated to a certain extent.

13. Should I be concerned about wildfires hundreds of miles away from me?

Although you may not be near a wildfire, you can still feel its effects.

Wildfire smoke travels far, obstructs the sky, and worsens air quality.

The smoke will carry dangerous pollutants, which can cause a range of health problems.

We recommend that you pay attention to the EPA, National Weather Service, and local health agencies.

They typically monitor air quality and issue warnings when air quality is unhealthy.

If you need to stay inside due to poor air quality or evacuate your home for any reason, your local authorities will let you know

Final Thoughts

Wildfires can be scary, but take comfort knowing that you can help prevent them and keep your community safe.

Keep an eye out for the fire risk in your community and never light a fire without a safety plan.

Additional Resources

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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

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