Forests cover about a third of all the land on Earth, including about 700 million acres in the US alone. They’re places of unmatched beauty, and a treasure trove of natural resources that can be used for food, medicine, and building materials.
However, manmade wildfires ravage these forests all too often, as the result of negligence or arson. While some fire is good, unplanned fires can make it difficult for a forest to recover, often taking dozens of years for them to regain some of their former glory. As such, wildfire prevention is something that we all need to take seriously, both for the good of the environment, and the safety of those who might get caught up in the blaze.
What Causes Wildfires?
Perhaps you’re familiar with the famous line quoted by Smokey the Bear: “Only you can prevent forest fires.” The hidden messaging in this phrase would indicate that most wildfires are started by people, which is why they’re the only ones who can prevent them.
And it’s true – about 85% of all forest fires are started by humans. When you consider the fact that there were 58,950 wildfires in 2020 alone, that means that roughly 50,000 of those were caused by human negligence. A staggering number any way you slice it.
However, not all of these were the result of unattended campfires. Plenty of others were created by intentional acts of arson, discarded cigarettes, the burning of debris, and equipment failures and malfunctions. Then you also have the non-human causes that make up the other 15% of wildfires, of which, lightning is the primary culprit.
Ecological Role of Fire
Wildfires are often viewed as devastating acts of nature, consuming and destroying everything in their path. The number of lives lost to them over the years, and the amount of property damage on top of that, is enough to make your jaw drop in disbelief. Depending on the size of the fire and where it’s located, tornados, hurricanes, and floods can seem like child’s play in comparison.
But fire actually plays a critical role in the health of the ecosystem, acting as a way to clear out the old and bring in the new. Not only does it consume deadwood, in order to provide nutrients for the soil, but some plants actually need the fire in order to germinate their seeds.
Back before we really understood the role that fire plays, the policy was to do everything possible to limit the creation and spread of forest fires. However, suppressing fires to that extent is harmful in its own way. Without regular burnings, dead biomass will quickly accumulate on the forest floor, which increases the risk for more frequent and intense wildfires in the future. These mega fires are far more likely to impact human lives and property, emphasizing the importance of letting nature run its course.
However, don’t think you have a free pass to be careless with fire just because it has ecological value. You should still do everything in your power to prevent wildfires, otherwise they run the risk of getting out of hand. The Forest Service manages prescribed fires, which are controlled burnings designed to improve the health of the ecosystem and limit the occurrence of extreme wildfires.
Which is to say, leave the fires to the specialists!
To do your part in staying safe and responsible, here are a few tips that you can follow to help prevent wildfires:
1. Build Your Campfire Away from Flammables
It should go without saying, but you never want to make a fire that’s close to other flammable objects. This includes dry grass, leaves, needles, and brush, as well as your tent and other personal items. Ideally, you’ll be building your campfire on a flat location, either in a pit that you’ve dug or in a fire ring surrounded by rocks. Of course, if you’re at a campground that has a fire pit available, that’s going to be your best option.
2. Don’t Leave Your Fire Unattended
Negligence is one of the biggest factors contributing to wildfires. If you’re going to build a fire, don’t leave it unattended – all it takes is a strong gust of wind to blow some sparks into a patch of dry brush. Keep your fire small and manageable, and always have a bucket of water on hand (or something similar) to extinguish it quickly, in case of emergency.
3. Douse the Fire Until It’s Cold
As long as there’s heat radiating from your campfire, even if the flame is long gone, there’s still a risk of wildfire. Continue to douse the embers and ashes with water until everything is cool to the touch. It’s only at this point that you should feel comfortable leaving the area.
4. Check Weather Conditions
Is there a drought where you are? Are you likely to encounter strong winds? Have the temperatures been exceptionally hot? If the answer to any of these is yes, then you need to consider non-flammable light and heat sources. In these sorts of conditions, it’s just too dangerous to start a fire for any purpose.
5. Beware of Equipment that Produces Sparks
Never use equipment that can create sparks if the area around you is dry. If you must, then clear the area around your workspace, removing anything dry and flammable to the best of your ability.
6. Keep Vehicles Off Dry Grass
Perhaps you didn’t realize it, but the exhaust from your vehicle can get surprisingly hot – sometimes in excess of 1,000 degree Fahrenheit! With that in mind, it’s easy to see how off roading on dry grass is a great way to start a fire. Especially if you find yourself idling in one location for longer stretch of time. Keep track of the weather and the current risk for wildfire before you decide to drive off the main road.
What to Do if There’s a Wildfire Near You
Unfortunately, you may still find yourself in a position where a wildfire is heading in your direction. Should you find yourself in a circumstance like this, there are a few steps that you should take immediately:
If you see a wildfire, don’t just assume that everyone already knows about it. Especially if you haven’t been notified by an outside agency, it’s likely that word hasn’t spread about the fire’s existence yet. Call 911 immediately so that proper measures can be taken, and folks can start to evacuate if they’re in the line of fire – literally.
Create a plan for evacuation
Assuming FEMA hasn’t issued an order or recommendation to evacuate yet, it’s still good to plan out what you’ll do if you need to go somewhere else. Start by calling friends and family to see if they’ll let you spend a few nights at their place while you wait out the fire. Remember to turn off any valves that supply natural gas, propane, heating oil, or other flammable substances. Close doors and windows to slow down airflow, and wear clothes made from fire retardant fabric (such as cotton or wool). It can also be helpful to gather tools that are useful for fire management, such as rakes, axes, shovels, and buckets. And finally, don’t forget to fill as many containers with water as possible, in case you need to use them to put out a fire.
If you receive orders to evacuate…
Gather important documents, pets, and valuables inside your car. If they can’t all fit, find a fireproof safe to store them, or submerge them in a pool or other body of water if they’re waterproof. Disconnect your garage door from the automatic opener so that you can open the door manually, and consider leaning a ladder against the side of your house for firefighters to use. Once you’ve taken care of all that, turn the lights on inside and outside your house for increased visibility. Then, drive safely to your next destination.
Protecting Against Smoke
Even if you don’t find yourself threatened by the flames of the wildfire, the smoke is harmful in its own way. Able to travel hundreds of miles, cities in a different country may experience problems with pollution because of a wildfire where you live. It’s sort of like a nuclear bomb – the blast from the explosion targets a very specific area, but the fallout from the radiation is able to spread much farther. In that case, what are you supposed to do if your town is consumed by smoke?
Who’s Most at Risk?
While smoke isn’t good for anyone to breathe, it does affect some people more than others. For example, folks who suffer from heart or lung disease are likely to experience more severe symptoms. Likewise, older adults and children are also at a higher risk, either because of underlying health disorders or because their airways are still developing. Pregnant women may also find that their children will be born prematurely if they inhale too much smoke.
Air Quality Ratings
If the air looks a little hazy, or if it smells funny when you step outside, your region may be experiencing poor air quality. The AQI (air quality index) is a good indicator for how good or bad the air is at any given time. The range goes like this:
0-50: Good. Air quality poses little to no risk.
51-100: Moderate. Acceptable for most, but may cause problems for those who are extra sensitive to pollution.
101-150: Unhealthy for sensitive groups. While the general public probably won’t notice any symptoms, sensitive people will start to have health issues.
151-200: Unhealthy. Everyone will start to notice problems with their health.
201-300: Very unhealthy. Everyone may start to notice severe health effects.
301-500: Hazardous. Emergency conditions that are dangerous for everyone.
As someone with more sensitive lungs, I start to have trouble breathing once the AQI hits 100. Symptoms will vary from person to person, so make sure you take appropriate action depending on the severity of your health condition.
Keep Indoor Air as Clean as Possible
If you’ve been advised to stay indoors, or if you’re sensitive to pollution, do your best to keep the air inside your home clean. You can do this by limiting the amount of “fresh” air entering your house, keeping your doors and windows closed, and changing dirty air filters.
In addition to that, don’t do anything that might add more pollution into the air. Burning a candle, running a gas stove, or lighting up your fireplace can all decrease the quality of the air inside your home. Even vacuuming can stir up particles on the floor, allowing them to contribute to the problem.
Regular Masks Won’t Help
Dust masks, paper masks, cloth masks, and other “normal” types of masks won’t protect you against wildfire smoke. The particles found inside the smoke are too small to be blocked by ordinary masks, which is why a respirator is necessary for better protection. For example, an N95 respirator would be more effective against both smoke and viruses than any type of disposable mask that you might find on the market.
Protecting Your Home Against Wildfires
It’s often said that one’s home is more ignitable than any of the surrounding vegetation. In the wake of being hit by a wildfire, there have been many stories of homes being burned to a crisp while the surrounding trees are still alive and green. Contrary to popular belief, wildfires don’t just ravage everything in their paths – they need fuel in order to survive and spread. Unfortunately, homes and other urban settlements are excellent fuel sources.
While it’s not possible to make your house fireproof, there are some steps that you can take to prevent too much damage from occurring. To mitigate damage caused by a conflagration, here are a few steps you can take around your property:
1. Fix Your Roof
The single best thing you can do to prevent a fire from consuming your home is to proof your roof. After all, the roof is the most likely place for embers to fall. And once the roof goes up in flames, it isn’t long before the rest of the building follows suit.
If your roof is made from wood shingles, or another flammable material, consider replacing them with something like asphalt shingles, tile, slate, or metal. It can be a bit of a hassle, but it’s far more effective than applying flame retardant on top of what you already have. Especially if you live in a location that’s frequently hit by wildfires every year, it’s an investment worth making.
2. Clear the Perimeter
Once you’ve taken care of your roof, take a look at the area surrounding your house. Specifically, you should clear away anything flammable that’s within 5 feet of your home, such as wood logs, a wooden fence, mulch, gas tanks, dead vegetation, and other organic substances. Even organic fertilizers can go up in flames if an ember falls on them, so it’s important to do your research and keep things like these far away from your home.
Ultimately, anything combustible that’s within 100 feet of your house can be a threat. Within this space, make sure plants are spread out, low hanging branches are pruned, and all vegetation is regularly watered.
3. Work Together
It doesn’t matter how hard you work to fireproof your property if your neighbors don’t do the same! It’s like the saying, “A chain is only as strong as the weakest link.” If you’re in a neighborhood where the houses are pressed pretty close together, it’ll be very easy for the fire to spread once one of those houses goes up in flames. Because of this, community organized fire preparedness is vitally important for reducing risks that you wouldn’t have control over otherwise.