A wildfire is defined as any unwanted and unplanned fire burning in a forest, shrub, or grass. It is one of the most destructive natural forces that exist. Although lightning strikes can create wildfires, the majority of them - estimated to be around 90 percent - are caused by human activity. People are typically responsible for wildfires due to untended campfires, sparks generated by vehicles or equipment, or intentional ignition during incidents of arson.
Factors Contributing to Severity Level
Factors that might initially limit the frequency of global wildfires, including climate-induced rainfall increases in tropical areas, threaten to produce more violent and destructive blazes due to ample biomass growth. The combination of a changing climate and urbanization will likely cause wildfire events to become more disruptive and destructive in the long term.
Three major factors determine the severity of wildfires:
- Weather: Dry, hot, and windy weather increases the likelihood of major wildfires. These conditions make ignition easier, allow fuels to burn rapidly, and increase fire intensity. High wind speeds, in particular, can transform a small, easily controllable fire into a catastrophic event in a matter of minutes.
- Topography: Slope steepness is one of the most influential topographic features on fire behavior. As slope steepness increases, so does the rate at which a fire will spread. A steep incline also complicates firefighting and containment efforts of responding authorities. Other important topographic features include the direction a slope faces (south and southwest slopes usually have more fires as they tend to heat up and dry out quickly) and steep, narrow drainages (chimneys).
- Fuel: Wildfire fuels usually consist of living vegetation and dead plant material. Houses may also become a source of fuel.
2019 Wildfire Season
Wildfire seasons depend on several factors, including local weather patterns and longer-term regional climate trends. There is an observable increase in fire activity during summer and fall months, which often correlates with periods of drought. Dry and highly flammable vegetation, high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds are also typical during these months, creating ideal conditions for rapid fire growth.
Wildfire season in the US in 2019 may be worse than in 2018, with conditions already favorable in the southwestern US. Last year’s wildfire season cost the US billions of dollars in related damages. Moisture in the late spring of 2019 contributed to area vegetation growth in the western US. Following spring activity, long stretches of heat have begun to dry out the new brush growth. This presents favorable conditions for heavy wildfire activity in late summer.
Wildfire-derived hazards can have just as deadly, and can have longer-lasting consequences than the initial fire. As urban sprawl and population growth push people into living in more fire-prone areas, the likelihood and frequency of infrastructural losses associated with wildfires will increase. The immediate impact of wildfires can be life-threatening.
- Smoke produced by burning vegetation poses health concerns for both the immediate area as well as regions downwind of wildfire complexes.
- The loss of vegetation also increases the threat of dangerous flash flooding and mudflows, which can threaten nearby areas for years following a major blaze. The Thomas Fire and resultant mudslides in Mendocino, California in early 2018 is a great example of this.
Mitigate Risk of Wildfire During a Camping Trip
When planning an outdoor trip, develop a safety plan. Ensure that you are traveling to a safe environment and that you have the proper equipment to help keep the environment free of accidental wildfire. The plan should also address what to do in case a wildfire threatens you.
Include the following in your safety plan:
- Know the area. If camping, make sure to plan an escape route should you need to evacuate the area.
- Develop a checklist to include necessary fire-prevention items to pack, as well as reminders to clear nearby brush. Be prepared to use proper campfire extinguishing methods. By following a few simple rules and reminders, you can help keep outdoor park and woodland areas safe.
- Know if fire or travel restrictions are in effect in the area to which you are traveling. Call the local fire department, forest service, or government representatives to make sure the area is restriction-free.
- Be aware of weather forecasts. If you are traveling during fire season, avoid areas that could experience potentially dangerous weather patterns, including excessive heat, low humidity, and strong winds.
At the first sign of a wildfire, leave the area immediately by established trails or roads. Contact fire officials as soon as possible. If the escape route is blocked, go to the nearest lake or stream. Stay in the water while the fire passes overhead or is stopped by the water barrier. Contact local authorities via mobile phone or radio to notify them of your location and situation.
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