Wildfires are a danger that can strike almost anywhere. As with everything, there are areas that are more prone to wildfire outbreaks, and as the temperatures are heating up, it’s something to keep in mind. Wildfires are uncontrolled fires burning in wildlife areas, but they can consume homes, structures, and agricultural vegetation as well if they aren’t contained. A wildfire can move incredibly fast, and change direction at a moment’s notice.
In the United States, there is an average of 100,000 or more wildfires per year, and about 1.2 million acres of land is burned. Just last year (2016) alone there were 67,743 major wildfires reported, which burned a total of 5,509,995 acres of land across the U.S. The largest danger to people occurs as a fire moves close to an inhabited area. There are often evacuations if a fire is near, and the evacuations are sometimes widespread because of the rate at which a fire can change direction. Once a fire reaches more than just vegetation, it can also give off toxic fumes as it burns through certain materials and chemicals.
Although often harmful and destructive to humans, naturally occurring wildfires play an integral role in nature. They return nutrients to the soil by burning dead or decaying matter. They also act as a disinfectant, removing disease-ridden plants and harmful insects from a forest ecosystem. And by burning through thick canopies and brushy undergrowth, wildfires allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, enabling a new generation of seedlings to grow.1
While nature can be held accountable for some wildfires, close to 90% of fires are started by people. Arson, and being careless account for the start of most wildfires. Arson is deliberately setting a fire and is a criminal act. Most of the fires are started by people being careless, whether walking away from a fire, not making sure it is completely out before going in, throwing out a cigarette butt or match that’s still warm, or sparks from machinery. Even driving through a forest area with a chain dragging can cause a small spark which may be just enough to start a fire.
Fires need 3 things to sustain themselves: fuel, oxygen, and heat. In a wildfire, the fuel is usually the trees, shrubs, and other vegetation that burns. Fuel can also be homes and structures if the fire gets to an inhabited area. Basically, anything flammable can be considered fuel for the fire. Oxygen is present in the air, so that’s a hard one to deplete to try to stop a fire from burning. Heat can be anything that starts the fire. In a dry time, this can be as little as a still-warm cigarette butt or match, to embers flying out of a campfire, to heat so intense it creates spontaneous combustion. Lightning and volcanic activity also contribute to natural causes of wildfires.
Even though a wildfire can occur anytime of the year, they are more common in the dry months. As leaves and plants die from the heat and lack of water, they become perfect fuel for a wildfire to spread rapidly. Fires are more prevalent during a drought or heat wave. If the ground is already dry, it burns quickly whereas ground that has had rain won’t burn as fast since it has moisture in the ground covering.
A wildfire can often go unnoticed when it first starts, but as it grows it can quickly spread. One of the worst natural weather event that makes containing a wildfire difficult is wind. The stronger the winds, the more it can spread the fire and embers from tree to tree. In high winds, such as the Santa Ana winds in California, a wildfire can spread up to 40 miles per day and consume about 1,000 acres of land per hour.
If you live in an area that is prone to fires, make sure that you and your family are ready, and prepare your home to prevent fires as much as possible.
- Know the risk in your area
- Have an evacuation kit ready (check out my hurricane evacuation kit, you want similar items ready)
- Plant fire-resistant trees and shrubs around your home
- Know how to turn off the electricity, water, and gas lines to your home if you have to evacuate
- Plan a few different routes to a safer location since you don’t know where the fire will be
During a Wildfire and After
What you do during a wildfire and how you respond afterwards can have a huge impact on your family and home. If a wildfire is nearing your home, it’s best to evacuate as soon as you possibly can. Wildfires can change speed and direction at a moment’s notice, so it’s better to be out of the way before there is any danger. Also remember that others will be evacuating to roads may get congested.
- Evacuate as soon as possible, don’t hesitate
- Wear protective clothing: long pants and sleeves, sturdy shoes, a hat, protective glasses, and have a bandana or scarf to cover your face from the smoke
- Lock up your home when you evacuate and let someone outside the danger area know you are leaving and where you are going
- Don’t forget to pack for and bring your pets with you
- Listen to the news for updates and evacuations, as well as closed roads
- Watch for rapid changes in the fire and adjust your route accordingly
Once the wildfire has been contained or extinguished, don’t return until authorities say it is safe. When you get back to your home, assess for any damages and take photos for insurance purposes. Make sure to check your roof as well, and be careful of any hot spots that could flare up.
While there have been many wildfires in Florida, thankfully none of them ever threatened where I’ve lived. The closest I came to a wildfire and had it impact my plans was when I went to California last year for my Legacy Republic Convention. My mom, her best friend, and I flew out there a few days early so we could explore the area. While we were there, the big Soberanes Fire was burning south of us. The furthest south we drove was to Carmel, and the fire was between Carmel and Big Sur. When we were in Carmel, you get tell the air was hazy from the smoke of the fire, and could smell it at time. We were planning to drive down to Big Sur to go eat at a restaurant that was overlooking the water on a large cliff, but when we called they said they were still open at that moment, but there was no view because of the fire. We decided to head back to the hotel because it was another hour+ drive down to that area, and we didn’t want to get caught in the fire’s path. The fire was started as a result of an illegal campfire, and ended up burning for 82 days with an estimated $236 million in costs and over 136,000 acres burned, including over 50 homes and structures.