Nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by human activities during campfires, which may have been left unattended to, the burning of debris, equipment use, and malfunctions, negligently discarded cigarettes, and intentional acts of arson. More than 4.1 million acres have burned across the United States in 2020. About 1 million of those since mid-September, with California having more than 3.3 million acres scorched by fire.
The latest wildfire incident is the Colorado wildfire which has razed more than 8,700 acres in less than 24 hours on Sunday. Close to 3,000 people in Boulder County have been forced to evacuate.
The destruction caused by wildfires in the United States has significantly increased in the last two decades. An average of 72,400 wildfires cleared an average of 7 million acres of U.S. land each year since 2000, double the number of acres scorched by wildfires in the 1990s. In 2015, the largest wildfire season recorded in U.S. history burned more than 10 million acres of land.
How wildfires start
Though they are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as natural disasters, only 10 to 15 percent of wildfires occur on their own. The other 85 to 90 percent result from human causes, including unattended camp and debris fires, discarded cigarettes, and arson.
Naturally occurring wildfires can spark during dry weather and droughts. In these conditions, normally green vegetation can convert into bone-dry, flammable fuel; strong winds spathe had the fire quickly, and warm temperatures encourage combustion. With these ingredients, the only thing missing is a spark—in the form of lightning, arson, a downed power line, or a burning campfire or cigarette—to wreak havoc.
The three elements for starting wildfires
Natural or man-made, three conditions must be present for a wildfire to burn: fuel, oxygen, and a heat source. Firefighters call these three elements the fire triangle.
Fuel is any flammable material surrounding a fire, including trees, grasses, brush, even homes. The greater an area’s fuel load, the more intense the fire is likely to be. The most wildfire-prone state is California, which lost 259,148 acres of land to 8,194 wildfires in 2019.
Air supplies the oxygen a fire needs to burn. California wildfires are often made worse by the hot, dry Santa Ana winds, which can carry a spark for miles.
Heat sources help spark the wildfire and bring fuel to temperatures hot enough to ignite. Lightning, burning campfires or cigarettes, and even the sun can all provide sufficient heat to spark a wildfire.
How wildfires are stopped
Firefighters battle blazes by depriving them of one or more of the fire triangle fundamentals. One traditional method is to douse existing fires with water and spray fire retardants. Firefighters also sometimes work in teams, often called hotshots, to clear vegetation from the land around a fire to contain and eventually starve it of fuel. The resulting tracts of land are called firebreaks.
Firefighters may also employ controlled burning, creating backfires, to stop a wildfire. This method involves fighting fire with fire. These prescribed—and controlled—fires remove undergrowth, brush, and litter from a forest, depriving an otherwise raging wildfire of fuel.
What to do during a Wildfire
Information is key, so you need to stay informed about the progress of wildfires closeby.
If a wildfire is approaching, listen regularly to local radio or TV stations for updated emergency information. Follow the instructions of local officials as they will know the safest evacuation route.
- Have supplies ready.
If you must evacuate, wear protective clothing such as sturdy shoes, long pants (denim, cotton, or wool is best), and long-sleeved shirts and gloves. Your emergency to-go back should also include items that can help protect the spread of COVID-19, including hand sanitizer and face masks.
Lock your home and take a disaster supplies kit with you.
- Avoid smoke and fumes.
Keep children, babies, and infants away from areas where there is smoke or fumes, and stay indoors if possible. The smoke produced by the wildfire may cause breathing problems or contain poisonous toxins.