Things You Need to Know about Wildfires

Things You Need to Know about Wildfires
With high-temperature records being broken across the United States, wildfires are an unfortunate likelihood that can disrupt and destroy property along with lives. Having a plan, fortifying your home, obtaining emergency supplies, and listening to evacuation orders are critical steps to keep you and your family safe if a wildfire is headed your way. This natural disaster can move quickly, so a pre-set plan and supplies are essential to grab and go!

What Is A Wildfire?

A wildfire is a large fire that spreads rapidly over the woodland or brush. Wildfires can move slowly but often move quite quickly when pushed by winds. They can spread with speeds up to 6-14 miles per hour (10-22km/hr), or even faster in certain conditions. The type of fuel, wind speed, slope of the terrain, and man-made structures all affect how a wildfire behaves.

What Causes Wildfires and Are They Natural or Man-Made?

Wildfires are both natural and man-made. About 90% of wildfires are man-made, while the remaining ten percent are caused by lightning or lava near volcanic areas. In some cases, lightning-started fires can smolder for a week or two before igniting the surrounding material. In periods of drought, dry fuels can increase the chance of a wildfire.
 A natural wildfire is healthy for some ecosystems. Some trees and plants are only able to reproduce when a wildfire spreads through a forest or brushland.
Due to human activities, man-made wildfires are now largely different for a few primary reasons.
Man-made wildfires now are:
  • Larger
  • Burn hotter
  • Occur more frequently
Naturally, wildfires would be:
  • Smaller
  • Burn at a lower temperature
  • Occur sporadically (every few years) rather than yearly.
This shift is primarily due to human activities along with excessive fuel on the forest floor (due to forest management practices). Instead of allowing a forest to healthily regrow after the fire, these larger and hotter fires heavily damage native plant species. This allows invasive species to, in some cases, take root and increase the chance and likelihood of wildfires in the future.

How Does a Wildfire Start?

Wildfires can be started from many different sources. Most current wildfires in the U.S start due to human activity (90%) and are not natural. Ignition sources include:
  • Unsecured chains from trailers (striking the asphalt and causing hot sparks)
  • Discarded cigarettes, fireworks, matches
  • Unmonitored campfires
  • Intentional ignition
The Buckweed fire in California destroyed 21 homes and covered over 38,000 acres; all started because a child was playing with matches. It is important to remember what activities can easily spiral out of control and to be safe around ignition sources.

When and Where Do Wildfires Occur?

In the United States, wildfires are generally common between May and October. However, if there is sufficient dry fuel, such as grass or wood, a wildfire can spread. This means that with hotter temperatures becoming the rule rather than the exception, wildfire season can extend outside the usual months. Wildfires can occur anywhere where there is enough dry fuel and an ignition source. Generally, grassland fires move faster than those in woodlands. It is therefore important to know what type of fire behavior is common in your area.
The top 10 U.S states at risk for wildfires are:
2019 Top 10 states at high to extreme wildfire risk

Can You Stop a Wildfire?

Yes, you can stop a wildfire. Many resources are available when trying to fight a fire. They include:
  • Wildland fire engines. (trucks with water and hoses)
  • Air resources such as helicopters and planes that drop fire-retardant in front of or on the blaze to slow the spread.
  • On-the-ground crews. These firefighters engage the fire by digging firebreaks, utilizing hoses, or clearing the brush to slow the spread.
  • A Backburn is a fire that is lit to burn off any of the fuel ahead of the larger blaze. While lighting a fire to stop a fire may seem counterintuitive, when the larger fire moves forward, there’s nothing left to burn.
It is important to realize that regular, small wildfires are healthy for forests and grasslands under normal conditions. However, previous forest, grassland, and fire suppression policies have made fires burn far hotter, larger, and more often than is natural. These fires then often threaten homes, lives, and require intervention.

What Are The Largest Bushfires In The World?

The largest fires in recent years include the 2003 Russian Wildfires which burned over 200,000 km2. The Australian wildfire season during 2019-2020 burned nearly that amount at 180,000km2. Within the United States, the August Complex fire during 2020 burned over a million acres (4,000 km2). The August Complex fire originated as 38 separate fires but eventually merged into a gigantic blaze.
fire danger rating today

How Can We Prevent Wildfires?

Proper forest management is key to preventing large wildfires. Such management includes:
  • Prescribed burns. Frequent, intentional and managed fires mimic the low-intensity burns that are natural in various forest ecosystems.
  • Keeping invasive species from overtaking native populations. Cheatgrass, for example, is an invasive species in the Western United States that is much more flammable than native grasses.
  • Educating the general public about properly extinguishing any ignition sources.

What Should You Do If You Live In a Wildfire-Prone Area?

If you live in a wildfire-prone area, there are a few precautionary steps to take. First is having a general preparation and evacuation plan, while making sure your home is prepared against potential wildfires. Steps to take include:
  • Have a general wildfire emergency plan and supplies
  • Remove trees and debris from the immediate area around your home (about 30 feet)
  • Keep grass mowed and trimmed.
  • Do not store combustible materials unprotected, make sure they are contained and separate from the house.
  • Consult government resources on what you can do to prepare.
    (Click here for the official U.S. government website on Wildfire Preparedness https://www.ready.gov/wildfires)

What To Prepare Before a Wildfire Occurs?

If you live in an area at risk, here are some basic steps for individuals and families to prepare.
  • Have emergency supplies prepared. Wildfires can move extremely quickly. While advanced warning may be possible, emergency supplies are essential to grab and go at a moment’s notice
  • Have an emergency plan in place. This includes supplies, evacuation routes, and emergency contacts. A plan for evacuating for a wildfire can be similar to that of preparing for a hurricane. (Read about hurricane preparedness here)

Supplies list:

  • Three-day supply of non-perishable food and three gallons of water per person
  • Face masks or respirators for heavy smoke
  • Map marked with at least two evacuation routes including meet-up locations if separated
  • Prescriptions or special medications such as high cholesterol medication, anti-seizure prescriptions, insulin, or thyroid medication.
  • Change of clothing
  • Extra eyeglasses or contact lenses
  • An extra set of car keys, credit cards, cash or traveler’s checks
  • First aid kit including cold compresses and burn cream
  • Flashlight
  • Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
  • Jackery power station to charge phones, radio and some other necessary home appliances
  • Sanitation supplies
  • Copies of important documents (house deeds, photos, birth certificates, passports, etc.)
What To Do During The Wildfire Season

What To Do During The Wildfire Season?

In most cases, fires are monitored close enough to give residents some warning before evacuation. During fire season, be sure to monitor official local news and stay diligent if nearby grasslands or forests are dry. Weather apps often publish ‘red flag warnings’ which indicates when fire conditions are ideal (low humidity, no rain, high temperature and winds).

If all goes well, you may only have to deal with some heavy smoke blowing from a nearby fire, and that would be the worst of it. However, if necessary, evacuation orders will be broadcast across websites, local radio/television stations, and in some cases, phones. If they announce evacuation orders, listen and obey them. They are for your safety; no belongings are worth your life.

Grab your pre-positioned supplies and leave. Have items to be self-sufficient for a few days, along with your Jackery system. Do not try to return before the official announcement; you could put yourself and others in danger.

Continue to monitor the news for when it is safe to return home. After a wildfire has either burned itself out or been contained, local news sources or officials will inform you when it is safe to return home.

Contact your neighbors to make sure they weathered the disaster safely. Communities that help each other are more resilient against potential disasters.

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