How Does a Wildfire Start?

Wildfires have been occurring since the dawn of time. However, in recent decades, they have been devouring ecosystems at an alarming rate. And many experts believe that climate change is mostly responsible for the increased frequency and increased damage these fires have wreaked upon the planet. Furthermore, they caution that there’s much more to come if drastic measures are not taken to reverse the impact humans are having on the environment. Once wildfires start, it can spread because of the breeze, or because of fuel.

Forest Burning
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Despite some people’s personal beliefs about humanity’s direct impact on the environment. The fact remains that wildfires are on the rise. They are causing massive destruction here in the United States, and other parts of the world. It is up to humans to find solutions to this problem.

  1. So what exactly is a wildfire?
  2. How is climate change contributing to wildfires?
  3. How are wildfires started?
  4. And how can wildfires be prevented?

What is Wildfire?

Wildfire is a fire that burns massive amounts of land, trees, and vegetation, usually in wide-open rural areas. Massive wildfires in remote regions often burn for weeks at a time and consume thousands of acres.

Three elements must be present to create a wildfire. Dubbed The Fire Triangle by firefighters, these three elements are

  1. Fuel
  2. Oxygen
  3. Heat Source

Grass, dead trees, dry leaves, and other plant material provide the fuel. And when combined with oxygen, all you need is a heat source to trigger a wildfire. The heat source can be anything from the hot noon-day sun to a cigarette tossed out a car window or an ember from a campfire.

All it takes is a small spark to ignite a wildfire that can burn miles of habitat for days on end. These fires can even lead to human fatalities and millions of dollars in property damage.

Main Types of Wildfires

There are four main types of wildfires (peat, grass, bush, and forest), and all four may be present in a single wildfire event.

  1. A grass fire is composed of burning grasslands and can spread rapidly, especially under windy and dry conditions.
  2. Bush fires (or brush fires), as the name suggests, occur in bushy areas. They can spread almost as rapidly as grass fires, particularly when dried out, dead bushes provide the primary fuel source.
  3. Forest fires occur when entire forests catch fire. These can quickly turn into a conflagration (a massive, intense and aggressive wildfire) under dry, windy conditions as the flames leap from treetop to treetop at a rapid pace.
  4. Peat fires – and coal fires, their dried-out cousins – are the longest-burning fires on Earth. Believe it or not, but they can burn for hundreds or even thousands of years, as they are incredibly difficult to extinguish.

Peat is composed of partially-decayed plant material and often extends under the ground’s surface. Peat fires are heavily resistant to wet weather and traditional firefighting methods using fire retardants.

It contains large amounts of moisture, so these fires actually smolder and spread slowly. Moreover, releasing large quantities of carbon-rich smoke into the air as they burn. That creates dangerous levels of air pollution in the surrounding communities and contributes to increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

How is Climate Change Affecting Wildfires?

An average of seven million acres has been destroyed by wildfires every year since the year 2000 in the United States. That’s is double the acreage burned in the previous decade.

One way that climate change increases wildfire devastation is by creating more fuel. Warmer temperatures have caused snowpacks in the U.S. to melt up to four weeks earlier than in previous years. This early melting can result in water shortages later in the year.

Climate Effect Wildfires
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As the environment warms up and water sources run low, vegetation dries out and dies. However, leaving the ground covered with abundant potential fuel sources for fires. Dry conditions can also contribute to the spread of insects and pests that weaken and kill trees, creating yet additional fuel for forest fires.

Due to these and related changes in climate, the average wildfire season in the U.S. (the time from the first fire of the year to the last) has expanded by nearly 50 percent since 1970 and has resulted in double the number of large wildfires per year compared to previous decades.

How Do Most Wildfires Start?

How Wildfires Start Naturally
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Many wildfires start purely through natural means. However, nearly two decades of Wildland Fire Management Information (WFMI) research plus data from the U.S. Forest Service has found that humans cause about 85 percent of wildfires in the United States — either intentionally or unintentionally. So while it’s true that these fires can spark spontaneously, the majority are not – and can, therefore, humans prevent them.

How Wildfires Can Start Naturally

Wildfires can start all by themselves whenever the conditions are right.

Lightning strikes are the most common natural cause of wildfires, but lightning also causes home fires in urban areas. The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) reported that from 2007-2011 over 22,000 fires per year were caused by lightning strikes across the country in both urban and rural areas. Most lightning fires occur in outdoor, and rural areas. But some take place in urban regions and cause massive damage, injuries, and fatalities.

Some wildfires also start naturally during hot, dry weather. Dead grass, leaves, and branches provide ample fuel for these fires, and sometimes the hot sun alone is enough to spark a fire during the summertime.

Intentional Wildfires

Sadly, some wildfires are created intentionally. While rare, these cases of arson can result in the destruction of thousands of acres of natural land and resources. And in some cases, these fires can result in injuries, fatalities, and property damage.

Accidental Wildfires

Humans accidentally cause most wildfires.

Many factors contribute to the risk of wildfires in the U.S. over the past few decades. As human populations move away from large cities into rural areas, precautions must be taken to educate local communities and their visitors about the risks of wildfires. Furthermore, one must take steps to minimize the harmful impact these populations have on their environment.

A forest fire in an excluded rural area will do much damage to the natural environment. But that same fire in a forested landscape dotted with homes and small towns can put human lives at risk and cause millions of dollars in property damage.

It is crucial that people living in fire-prone rural areas. As well as those who simply visit for recreational purposes. Moreover, learn how to limit the spread of wildfires and how to prevent accidental wildfires from starting in the first place.

How Can People Help Prevent Starting a Wildfire?

It’s important to distinguish between what causes a wildfire and what contributes to the spread of the blaze once it ignites.

First, to effectively combat the damage caused by wildfires. It is essential to take steps to prevent starting these fires accidentally. people camping at campgrounds or out in the wilderness sparks many wildfires. Below are six tips to avoid starting a wildfire while camping.

  1. Never leave your campfire unattended
  2. Fully extinguish campfires and coals with water before leaving
  3. Never throw cigarettes on the ground or out the car window
  4. Don’t let kids play with fire, matches, and lighters
  5. Keep propane lanterns and stoves away from flammable materials
  6. Always have a fire extinguisher available
Prevent Wildfire
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But it is also important to take preventive steps to limit the fuel sources available to these fires to keep them from raging out of control once they start burning.

One method used by “hotshot” firefighting teams to limit wildfire fuel sources is to clear rural lands of dead trees and vegetation. Especially alongside roads and around populated areas. They often do it while a fire is burning to contain it. But you can also use this method in an ongoing manner to create firebreaks that limit the spread of future wildfires.

Landowners and homeowners in rural towns can use these same concepts to protect their properties from wildfires. Although, keeping their yards clear of dead leaves, grass, and tree branches. You can also equip homes with sprinkler systems around the yard and on rooftops to protect them from spotting. Spotting happens when burning embers from wildfire travel through the air and spark new fires in the spots where they land.

Another way to limit the spread of wildfires is to increase funding for fire departments in rural areas and to increase awareness and communication among the general population in these areas. Fast responses and adequate resources can go a long way to keep wildfires from rapidly spreading. It can save millions of dollars per year in damages – not to mention reducing the instances of injury and death.


Wildfires are on the rise in the United States, and dry conditions caused by climate change are primarily to blame. As is the case with many other problems facing the nation – humans are the cause, but humans are also the solution.

Only through targeted education and improved management of resources – and by following common-sense preventive measures like the ones discussed above – can we reduce the damage caused by wildfires.

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