Wildfires: What we all need to know

Every summer, wildfires sweep around various parts of the world, causing smoke, destruction, and lots of trouble. As most wildfires are created by a force of nature rather than arson, it is a conundrum for many to know what to expect from them or how concerned we all should be.

With Smoky the Bear’s old motto that “only you can prevent forest fires”, it is confusing to understand what our role in the process really is. Here is what you need to know.

Wildfire vs Forest Fire

The lethal forest fire 
The lethal forest fire 

Depending on where you live or grew up, you may have used the term “forest fire” instead of the term “wildfire”. A forest fire is a type of wildfire. Wildfire is just an all-encompassing term that includes a variety of different vegetation that is being burnt. If it is just a forest on fire, it can be called forest fire but many wildfires also include grass, bush, and can even include peat, making the term forest fire insufficient to what is really being burned.

Wildfires, generally speaking, pop up in dryer climates where the weather is hot enough for a fire really to catch and run out of control. If the forest is thicker, cooler, and wetter, a forest fire would not catch or progress well if it did. If you call it a forest fire, you can still be right, but wildfire is more general.

The Cons

The cons of a wildfire can be extensive. In the terms of a forest itself, a wildfire can devastate the ecosystem, including animals, water, and insects, as well as the plants and trees. Water is often polluted from the ash and smoke, potentially killing any fish that may have been there. Without the fish, animals who normally relied on them for food will be without. The cycle goes on. In addition, human dwellings are threatened if the wildfire gets close enough, destroying houses, farms, and putting people’s lives at risk.

The Pros

New life on an old tree
New life on an old tree

Believe it or not, there are actually some pros to a wildfire. A fire will remove any weaker or old trees and debris that have been cluttering the forest floor. By taking out any brush that had been built up, the forest will now have more room to allow younger trees to grow and thrive. There will also be more access to light and nutrients to encourage the younger trees to prosper. This is especially effective with a low-intensity fire that will not completely wipe out the young trees too.

This is an act of nature, however, and should not just be started by a human hoping to clear out brush. Humans starting a fire can spiral out of control quickly and cause more problems, where a small fire that may have been started by lightning may have better and less dangerous results.

Crown Fire vs Spot Fire vs Ground Fire vs Surface Fire vs Conflagration

A firefighter assesses the blaze
A firefighter assesses the blaze

Firefighters often throw around the terms crown, spot, ground, surface, and conflagration when they are discussing wildfires. The terms refer to the different levels the fires are burning at.

  • Crown: Crown fires can be the most dangerous of the types of wildfires. This refers to when the upper part of a tree, or the “crown” is burning and are most often spread by the wind, making it easy for the fire to grow in little time and making them difficult to control. The flames are generally large and extremely hot. They often run out of control in steep slopes that allow them to spread quickly.
  • Spot: If the fire has been blowing in the wind, sometimes a fire can jump to a new location or “spot”. This happens with firebrands, which are fireballs thrown by the wind to spread the fire out.
  • Ground: This is the slowest burning type of fire and it sticks to staying on the ground. It is usually underneath vegetation and is more like smoldering embers than an outright fire. They can grow into a crown fire if the weather is hot enough and they are left alone to burn.
  • Surface: A surface fire is where the litter on the ground of the forest is on fire. This usually includes twigs, branches, brush, leaves, and old growth that is taking up space. As long as a surface fire is well contained, they can be beneficial to the health of the forest, but run a risk of growing into a more troublesome crown fire.
  • Conflagration: This term is given to wildfires that are particularly aggressive. They have plenty of firebrands and usually a high wind, making them hard to control. Since the firebrands create new fires, a conflagration fire is dangerous and difficult for firefighters to battle.

What Starts a Fire?

Firestarter – the match is responsible for so many fires
Firestarter – the match is responsible for so many fires

Now that we understand the types of fires out there, you should know what starts them. The big contributors are both humans and nature if we put it simply. Common starts for a wildfire include:

  • Lightning: The majority of wildfires are caused by lightning. When lightning strikes a dry, hot forest, it can easily create a spark in dry brush or leaves that can spread to other areas and create a full-fledged wildfire.
  • Campfires: Camping is one of North America’s favorite pastimes and while many campers are safe and careful, this is not always the case. If a campfire is not properly attended or put out properly, the wind can carry it away to start a bigger fire.
  • Smoking: Whether cigarettes or marijuana, smoking is a small spark that can cause trouble if flicked aimlessly instead of properly disposed of.
  • Burn piles: It is common for people to burn their own wood debris and yard waste, but those fires can go out of control if not done properly. This means lighting one far away from anything that can catch on fire and observe your local burn ordinances. Most places have selected times of the year or even times of day when burning is permitted.
  • Arson: Of course there are still some bad people out there who would like to start a fire for the fun of it. While they are not the major reason why fires start, they are definitely trouble.

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marion-fernandez is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival