Wildfires: Raging Rings of Fire

Learn all about natural wildfires, including their causes and how to protect your home from these weather realated disasters.

  • A wildfire burns uphill in the mountains
    Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto
  • A firefighter works at putting out a house fire.
    Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto
  • A forest fire produces tons of smoke.
    Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto
  • As fire spreads, it can consume trees and acreage quickly.
    Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto
  • An aircraft drops water and fire retardants in an effort to slow the fire and lessen its intensity.
    Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto

Each year, millions of acres in the United States and Canada are scorched by wildfires. In recent years, the wildfire problem has gotten significantly worse as the fires have become larger, more intense, and more destructive. Fires have occurred in places previously believed safe. Lives have been lost, and the costs in damage and in fighting the fires have skyrocketed.

By definition, a wildfire or wildland fire is an uncontrolled blaze that starts in vegetation and, at least initially, doesn’t involve structures. Wildfires become a great threat when they cross the so-called “wildland-urban interface,” thus endangering inhabited areas. In the summer of 2018, the Carr Fire in Northern California roared into parts of Redding, killing eight people and destroying more than 1,000 homes. In 2016, Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, was devastated by a wildfire — the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. In November 2016, a wildfire roared through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, killing 14 people and damaging or destroying some 2,400 buildings.

There’s no longer a predictable “fire season,” as wildfires can occur somewhere at any time. Major fires have occurred in the Great Plains during late winter, when strong winds have accompanied warm and dry conditions. In March 2017, one fire burned more than 800,000 acres in Oklahoma. For southern Florida, the greatest fire danger is in early spring, and 2017 went down as one of the worst fire seasons ever. In summer, the risk moves westward and northward. Historic fires have occurred recently in the Rockies from Montana to Arizona. California has also seen its worst fires during the past two years. The Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018 was the largest ever in the state’s history, with more than 400,000 acres burned. Wildfires are also common in Canada during the summer, typically burning millions of acres. In 2017, British Columbia saw its worst fire season ever, with nearly 3 million acres lost, and the summer of 2018 again brought devastating wildfires. Alaska has a similar summer fire season, and a record 5 million acres were burned in 2015.

Wildfire Behavior

The starting fuel for a wildfire (bushes, shrubs, grass, fallen leaves, etc.) must be dry to burn. A lack of precipitation even for just a few days may be enough, but typically we think of longer-term dryness or drought conditions preceding major fires. Seasonal dryness is common in some areas — in the summer out West and in the winter in southern Florida. Sporadic drought can occur in other regions. Considering the size of North America and the size of typical weather systems, drought will likely be occurring somewhere at any given time.

Before people were involved, wildfires were primarily caused by lightning strikes. And many fires in remote areas are still caused by lightning. But where people can be found, fires will be started. Often these are debris burns that get out of hand. Accidents, carelessness, and sometimes even arson can be contributing factors. Regardless of ignition sources, when it’s dry, assume fires will get started.

The basic concern with wildfires is how to control them once they get started. The vast majority of wildfires are easily contained by local fire departments. The ones that can’t be controlled early on become menacing. There are two major factors that affect the ability to control a wildfire.

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