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30 Frequently Asked Questions About Wildfires and Their Answers

Q: How do wildfires start?

A: Such a blaze can start with anything from a cigarette butt or a spark from a car’s muffler to a lightning strike or a tree falling against a power line. Unfortunately, there are many ways in which such fires can take off.

Q: What causes wildfires?

A: Human carelessness is the most common cause of wildfires. Humans cause more than 85% of wildfires in the United States. However, there are other causes of wildfires, including lightning, volcanic eruption, and spontaneous combustion.

Q: What is a wildfire?

A: From a quiet, peaceful night to a sudden roaring blaze in just minutes, wildfires are serious disasters that kill about 339,000 people across the world each year. Wildfires can happen anywhere, they spread rapidly, and they must be prepared for. The first step towards protecting yourself from a wildfire begins with knowing what wildfires are, how they form, and what about them makes them dangerous.

According to the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (a department that helps monitor wildfires from space), wildfires are defined as, “Wildfire, also called forest, bush or vegetation fire, can be described as any uncontrolled and non-prescribed combustion or burning of plants in a natural setting such as a forest, grassland, brush land or tundra, which consumes the natural fuels and spreads based on environmental conditions (e.g., wind, topography). Wildfire can be incited by human actions (such as land clearing), extreme drought, or in rare cases by lightning.”

Q: How to prevent wildfires?

A: In most of the natural disaster sections we’ve discussed so far, the key has been to focus on protecting yourself and your family from the disaster. This has been the focus because most of the disasters discussed have been natural disasters. And while some fires are natural in their cause, most of them are caused by humans.

That’s why no discussion of such fire events is not complete without a discussion about prevention. When humans follow basic wildfire prevention techniques, such events rarely occur. Here are some prevention points to keep in mind:

  • Only you can prevent wildfires.
  • Always be careful with fire.
  • Never play with matches or lighters. Fire is not a toy.
  • Always watch your campfire.
  • Make sure your campfire is completely out before leaving it.
  • Don’t ever toss a cigarette butt into the woods.
  • Don’t park a car in dry, grassy areas as residual heat from exhaust systems can ignite dry grass.
  • Make certain recreational vehicles have operating spark arrestors.
  • Make sure you are aware of current fire risks in any area you are living or traveling through.
  • Do not use fireworks or incendiary ammunition in dry, forested areas.
  • It is illegal to use fireworks or incendiary ammunition on all DNR-protected lands, regardless of conditions.
  • Make sure a campfire is cold before leaving it. Douse it with water so it is completely out.
  • Wildfires can start in residential backyards. Make sure your at-home fire pits and landscaping burns (burning leaves, for example) are well-tended to.
  • If you own forest land, do your best to manicure it and keep it well-maintained.

According to the United States Forest Service, about 87% of wildfires are caused by humans. That means that at least 87% of fires are 100% preventable. Do your part to prevent such fires from occurring, and if they do occur, get yourself and your family to safety as soon as possible.

Q: How many wildfires in California?

A: This state experiences literally thousands of fires each year, with as many as 10,000 fires occurring in any given year.

Q: Why does California have so many wildfires?

A: According to an expert, the changing climate, the large concentration of people, the over reliance on fire suppression, and high winds all contribute to the fires in California.

Q: How does climate change cause wildfires?

A: As the planet continues to warm and as dry regions become drier and rains become more sparse and infrequent, wildfires will be more common. Quoting the Council on Foreign Relations, “Climate change creates conditions that favor wildfires: hotter temperatures, deeper droughts, and drier vegetation. As the planet warms, fires start earlier in the year, last longer, and get bigger. Climate change is to blame for more than half of the increase in areas vulnerable to fire since 1984. Climate change has fueled the crisis in states such as California by driving record-breaking temperatures. Hotter temperatures dry out soil and vegetation, creating favorable conditions for fires to grow and spread rapidly. An intense heat wave generated California’s hottest August on record this year, and in September, Los Angeles County reached its own historical peak of 121°F. This extreme heat, along with years of preventing forests from burning naturally, has resulted in fire-prone lands brimming with fuel. Highly flammable vegetation serves as a powerful propellant for fires.”

Because the fire season is getting longer and conditions that precipitate wildfires are becoming more common, now more than ever, Americans must learn about wildfires, learn how to prepare for them, and learn how to protect themselves and their families. Most importantly, they must learn what they can do to prevent wildfires.

Q: How long do wildfires last?

A: A single fire lasts an average of 37 days before natural intervention (rain) and human intervention (fire crews) causes it to die out (or it simply runs out of fuel). The fire season now lasts an average of 76 days longer than it did in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1986, the average fire only lasted eight days. This all suggests that wildfires in America are getting much worse.

Fires can cover a large expanse of land, particularly when they become uncontrollable and cannot be put out by human intervention. The worst fire in American history also happened to be the most extensive. This was the Peshtigo Fire, a fire that occurred in both Wisconsin and Michigan. The fire burned about 3.8 million acres and took close to 2,500 lives.

Q: How to stop wildfires?

A: Civilians and even EMS and other medical personnel are not equipped to stop such blazes. Only firefighters have the tools, knowledge, and equipment necessary to stop such fires from spreading, and even these individuals are limited.

Q: How fast do wildfires spread?

A: The slightest spark can start a wildfire, and the slightest spark can also restart a fire. This is why you must not enter a recently-burned area unless local authorities say it is safe to do so. Fires can form quite suddenly and burn through millions of acres of land at shockingly fast speeds. The flames can travel about 14 miles per hour and can overtake the average human in minutes. Such fires can go from a tiny spark in the undergrowth to a full-on blaze in a matter of minutes.

Q: How to prepare for a wildfire?

A: It is very difficult to prepare for a wildfire, as there is almost nothing one can do to their home to defend it against such a flame. Rather, it’s important to know what to do to preserve human life during such a serious event. The following are ten additional, life-saving tips for how to survive a wildfire:

  • Protect your airways. The smoke may cause you to pass out and die.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a mask or cloth while evacuating.
  • Stay low to the ground if you must evacuate on foot.
  • Use the wind! If the wind is blowing past you and toward the fire, then run into the wind.
  • If the wind is behind the fire and blowing toward you, run perpendicular to the fire.
  • Go for nonflammable terrains like water, parking lots, barren ground, or already burned areas.
  • Avoid terrain with a lot of vegetation and other combustible material.
  • If trapped, hunker down in a non-combustible area. If not trapped, flee!
  • Seek safety in or near water. Get in the water, or put the water between you and the fire.
  • If you must hunker down, cover your body with wet rags, clothes, or even mud or dirt.

Q: Where do wildfires occur?

A: Disaster-level fire events can occur anywhere in the United States. Historically, different regions of the U.S. have been more prone to such fires than others. For example, the Midwest used to suffer particularly devastating fires, especially in the 1800s and around the turn of the century. In the 20th century, Alaska experienced many fires. In more recent decades, California has experienced the majority of U.S. fires. Idaho and the Pacific Northwest are also prone to fires.

The following are the top ten states in the U.S. for fires:

  • California
  • Texas
  • Colorado
  • Arizona
  • Idaho
  • Washington
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Montana
  • Utah

Because wildfires can happen anywhere, it’s important for everyone to know what these disasters are, what causes them, and how to prepare for them/respond to them.

Q: Are wildfires natural?

A: They can be, yes. But they can also be caused by humans. In fact, most such events today are caused by humans.

Q: When is wildfire season?

A: There are actually two such seasons. One begins in February and ends in May, and the other begins in October and ends in December. However, the season is quite variable. Others define the season as beginning whenever the first fire occurs, and ending whenever the last fire occurs.

Q: Are wildfires good?

A: Not exactly. While such events do have some natural benefits, a wildfire is an uncontrolled, unmanned, unstoppable blaze that may have been caused by humans but which is not controlled or managed by humans. On the other hand, a controlled burn is a planned, deliberate effort to manicure and maintain a forest by use of conservative burning and by using flames to reduce a forest’s undergrowth. Controlled burns have more benefits with fewer risks, whereas wildfires tend to have risks and destruction that outweigh the benefits.

Q: How do wildfires affect the environment?

A: Such events affect the environment in many ways. Such a fire is a part of nature, but fires can be deadly too, destroying homes, wildlife habitat, and timber, and polluting the air with emissions harmful to human health. Fire also releases carbon dioxide—a key greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere. But at the same time, such events act as a reset button for grasslands, prairies, and forests, which can be helpful to those ecosystems.

Q: How do wildfires help maintain savannas and grasslands?

A: Primarily, such burns remove dead and dying growth, clearing a way for new growth. Fires also help maintain the balance between grasses and larger plants and trees.

Q: How do wildfires start naturally?

A: Lightning is the most common cause of such an event, but a small percentage are started by spontaneous combustion of dry fuel on the forest floor.

Q: How to survive a wildfire?

A: Protecting yourself, your family, and your community from wildfires has several parts, most of which fall under the label of prevention. But what do you do when such a fire actually does occur?

  • The key response when fires break out is to evacuate. Get out of the area as quickly as possible and get away from the fire as fast as possible. Such fires are unplanned, uncontrolled, and unpredictable. They can start and burn in forests, grasslands, and prairies. These are fires that are dangerous, volatile, and extremely lethal. Here are some steps to follow if you find yourself in a region with an active fire:
  • Recognize critical warnings and alerts. The best way to survive such an event is to know when one is coming. Make sure you are signed up for real-time alerts through the FEMA app, the Emergency Alert System, and air quality alerts.
  • Follow an emergency plan. Make sure everyone in your household knows and understands what to do and where to go during a fire. Follow a preplanned route!
  • Evacuate. It is not possible to hunker down and “wait out” a massive burn event that is headed your way. You must evacuate. It’s important to have an evacuation route available and to determine a backup route in case the first route is consumed by fire, blocked, or otherwise inaccessible.
  • Wear face coverings. One of the biggest health risks during a serious fire is not the fire itself but the smoke and toxic fumes that one might inhale while trying to escape a fire. These can be lethal, so it is essential to wear a face-covering of some kind. Doing so may help protect your mouth, nose, throat, and lungs from smoke.
  • Follow local emergency assistance authorities. If authorities say to evacuate, do so. But if they tell you to stay put, that’s likely because the fire is not headed your way. In this case, stay at your home, as evacuating may put you in further danger. Similarly, if you did evacuate, do not return home until authorities say it is safe to do so.

Q: Is wildfire a natural disaster?

A: Even if its cause is human in origin, such fire events are considered natural disasters.

Q: Are wildfires getting worse?

A: They are. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “Not only is the average wildfire season three and a half months longer than it was a few decades back, but the number of annual large fires in the West has tripled — burning twice as many acres. Severe heat and drought fuel wildfires, conditions scientists have linked to climate change. If we don’t break the warming cycle, we expect more and worse wildfires in the years ahead.”

Q: Can wildfire smoke cause headaches?

A: Yes it can.

Q: How hot is a wildfire?

A: Wildfires can consume just about anything in their path. The average temperature of a wildfire is 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit, with flames reaching several feet high. Keep in mind that the average campfire is about 600 degrees Fahrenheit, suggesting that wildfires are much hotter than campfires, ovens, stovetops, etc.

Q: Can wildfire some cause sore throat?

A: Yes. In fact, the majority of the human harm caused by fires is not burns, but lung damage due to breathing smoke.

Q: Can wildfire smoke make you nauseous?

A: Yes. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “The effects of breathing wildland fire smoke include eye and throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, and nausea.”

Q: How do firefighters put out wildfires?

A: There are many methods utilized by fire crews to extinguish blazes. From boots-on-the-ground efforts to helicopters and tanker aircraft, crews employ time-tested methods, many of which have been perfected over the decades. Most firefighting involves putting out a blaze with water or fire retardant and preventing the spread of a blaze.

Q: Why are there so many wildfires?

A: As the dry season lasts longer and as temperatures continue to climb, such fires are more likely to occur, both by natural and human causes.

Q: How to help wildfire victims?

A: Fire victims need immediate relief, including shelter, food, water, and medical care. They often need financial support too, especially if their homes were destroyed by a fire. Anything from providing meals to victims to giving them a place to stay helps immensely.

Q: How are wildfires categorized?

A: Wildfires are categorized and named based off the damage they cause and how much acreage they burn. For some context, here are the top-ranked, worst fires in U.S. history:

One of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history just so happens to be a wildfire. It was called the Peshtigo Fire. It occurred in 1871, consuming 1.5 million acres of dry land. The fire started near the small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in the upper Midwest. High winds fanned the flames into firestorms, tornado-like columns of fire that leaped natural firebreaks, and even large bodies of water, spreading the fire further than believed possible. The fire killed about 2,500 people.

The Great Chicago Fire, another serious fire in U.S. history, also occurred in 1871. The fire lasted for two days, destroyed thousands of buildings in Chicago, and killed about 300 people. The fire caused about $200 million in damages as an area of Chicago about four miles long and a mile wide was destroyed by the blaze.

The 1902 Yacolt Burn is the collective name for dozens of fires that burned through Washington State and Oregon in 1902. The fires lasted for about four days and burned about 500,000 acres. This fire, like many others, was partially caused by humans. Dry conditions exacerbated the fires, causing them to spread more easily. The fires killed 65 people.

The Great Michigan Fire of 1871 started as a series of smaller fires that merged into a massive inferno that burned about 3,900 square miles of land. The flames ravaged Michigan cities like Holland, Port Huron, and Manistee, and part of the shoreline of Lake Michigan. This series of fires is estimated to have killed around 500 people.

Q: How does cutting power prevent wildfires?

A: According to the experts, cutting the power in a preemptive effort to prevent fires does have some efficacy. During strong winds, tree branches are more likely to fall and cause damage to power lines, which could in turn spark fires. In fact, many fires in California are caused by utility companies’ “Electric power and distribution lines, conductors and the failure of power poles.”


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