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Wildfires Explained

Why Wildfires Occur, How Climate Change Is Affecting Their Impact, and How To Prepare for and Manage Wildfires

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Thomas Eldridge

During the summer, many mid latitude climates experience an increased risk of wildfires. These fires, whether started by natural or human-made means, can quickly get out of control and cause widespread devastation unless properly managed. In this article, we explore why wildfires occur, how climate change is affecting their impact, and how to prepare for and manage wildfires.

What Is a Wildfire?

A wildfire, also known as a forest fire or bushfire, is an uncontrolled fire that occurs in a natural area such as a forest, grassland or prairie. Wildfires can be started by natural causes like lightning strikes, or by human causes such as unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes, or even intentional acts of arson. Once a wildfire begins, it can spread quickly and unpredictably, fueled by dry vegetation and weather conditions like high winds.

Wildfires are a common occurrence in many regions around the world, particularly in areas with hot, dry summers. While wildfires can be beneficial in some cases, such as helping to clear out dead trees and brush, they can also be extremely destructive, causing damage to homes, infrastructure and wildlife habitats. In addition, wildfires can have serious environmental and health impacts, including air pollution from smoke and destruction of important ecosystems.

Where Do Wildfires Occur?

Wildfires can occur in many regions around the world, but are most common in areas with hot, dry summers and a lot of flammable vegetation. Here is a look at where wildfires occur in some specific regions:

Where Are Wildfires in America?

Wildfires occur throughout North and South America, but are most common in the western regions of the United States, including California, Oregon and Washington. The high temperatures and dry climate of these areas create ideal conditions for wildfires to ignite and spread quickly. In recent years, large wildfires have also occurred in other regions of the United States, including the southeastern states and Alaska.

Where Are Wildfires in Europe?

Wildfires are most common in the southern and eastern regions of Europe, including Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy. These areas are prone to hot, dry weather conditions in the summer months, which can make vegetation more susceptible to ignition. However, wildfires have also occurred in other parts of Europe, including the United Kingdom and Scandinavia.

Where Are Wildfires in Australia?

Australia is known for its bushfires, which occur primarily in the southern and eastern regions of the country. The hot, dry climate of these areas, combined with a lot of flammable vegetation, makes them particularly susceptible to wildfires. In recent years, Australia has experienced some of the largest and most devastating wildfires in its history, including the 2019-2020 bushfire season, which burned over 18 million hectares of land.

wildfire situation in Europe on Tuesday the 9th of May 2023
The wildfire situation in Europe on Tuesday the 9th of May 2023. Wildfire preconditions (red) are met in a variety of areas, in particular Spain, which has recently experienced a strong heatwave, and the French riviera. Wind barbs help to show the possible spread of fires, whilst precipitation helps describe when they may be naturally hindered or even extinguished. As the season progresses, we can expect maps like these to show significantly increased risk across Europe.

What Causes Wildfires?

How Do Wildfires Start?

While natural causes can start wildfires, the majority of wildfires are actually caused by human activity. Common human causes include campfires that are not properly extinguished, cigarettes that are carelessly discarded and sparks from machinery or equipment. In addition, intentional acts of arson can also start wildfires.

The U.S.’s National Interagency Fire Center reports that in recent years, between 84% and 90% of wildfires were caused by human actions, such as campfires, fireworks and debris burning. This highlights the importance of fire prevention education and responsible behavior in reducing the number of human-caused wildfires.

How Do Wildfires Start Naturally?

Of those fires which start naturally, lightning is responsible for a significant fraction. Under hot and dry conditions, all it takes is a small spark to kick things off, and sometimes not even that.

Spontaneous combustion occurs when materials that are susceptible to self-heating, such as hay, compost or sawdust, reach a temperature that is high enough to cause them to ignite without an external spark or flame. This can occur when these materials are stored in large piles or bales, which can trap heat and create a self-sustaining fire.

While spontaneous combustion is a less common cause of wildfires than lightning or human activity, it can still be a factor in some cases. For example, wildfires that occur in remote areas with no apparent human activity or lightning strikes may be attributed to spontaneous combustion. It is also worth noting that spontaneous combustion can be difficult to detect and prevent, as it can occur slowly over time and may not be immediately visible to the naked eye.

As with all things which occur naturally — however destructive — wildfires play a role in the renewal of natural cycles, helping to clear out dead vegetation and promote new growth, which is beneficial to woodland ecosystems. However, human activity increases the number and extent of wildfire events, both directly — due to more being triggered by human activity — and indirectly — since the preconditions for wildfires are met more regularly as a result of climate change.

How Fast Do Wildfires Spread?

Wildfires can spread rapidly, often moving at speeds of several miles per hour. The rate at which a wildfire spreads depends on a variety of factors, including the type and amount of vegetation in the area, the slope of the terrain, and the weather conditions.

Weather parameters that are relevant to wildfire spread include temperature, humidity, and wind speed. High temperatures and low humidity can dry out vegetation and make it more susceptible to ignition, while strong winds can cause fires to spread more quickly and unpredictably.

Forecasting is an important tool for predicting the potential spread of wildfires and helping emergency responders plan and allocate resources. For example, a wildfire forecast might indicate that high temperatures and low humidity are expected in a particular area, which could increase the risk of ignition and rapid spread. This information can be used to issue warnings and evacuations, as well as to position firefighting resources in advance of a potential wildfire outbreak.

In addition to weather conditions, the presence of human structures and infrastructure can also influence the rate at which a wildfire spreads. Urban areas with a lot of buildings and paved surfaces can create barriers that slow or halt the spread of a wildfire, while rural areas with fewer structures and more natural vegetation may provide more fuel for a wildfire to consume.

Overall, predicting the rate at which a wildfire will spread can be challenging, as it depends on a complex interplay of factors. However, by monitoring weather conditions, fuel moisture levels and other variables, experts can make informed predictions about wildfire behavior and take steps to minimize the potential damage.

How Long Do Wildfires Last?

In some cases, wildfires may burn for only a few hours or days before being extinguished by firefighters or natural factors such as rain or cooler temperatures. In other cases, wildfires can persist for weeks or even months, consuming large areas of land and causing extensive damage to wildlife, ecosystems and human communities.

The longest continuously burning wildfire on record is the Chernobyl Fire in Ukraine, which started on April 26, 2020, and burned for more than three months. The fire spread through the contaminated forests and fields surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which had been the site of the catastrophic nuclear accident in 1986.

The Chernobyl Fire burned for a total of 105 days, consuming an estimated 165,000 acres of land and releasing large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. The fire was eventually contained in early July 2020, after an extensive effort involving firefighters, emergency responders, and military personnel from Ukraine and other countries.

How Does Climate Change Affect Wildfire Risk?

It is worth noting that the risk of wildfires is increasing in many parts of the world, including areas that have not traditionally experienced large wildfires. This is due in part to climate change, which is causing hotter and drier conditions in many regions and making vegetation more susceptible to ignition. As a result, it is important for individuals and communities to take steps to prepare for and prevent wildfires, no matter where they are located.

Wildfires unique jobs 2022 11 16 15 05 59 utc

Managing Wildfires

How Can We Stop Wildfires?

Once a wildfire has started, the priority is to contain it and prevent it from spreading further. This is typically done through a combination of direct and indirect firefighting techniques, as well as strategic use of natural and human-made barriers.

Direct firefighting involves physically attacking the flames with water, fire retardants, and other specialized tools and equipment. This approach is typically used in areas where the fire is relatively contained and firefighters can safely work on the front lines of the blaze.

Indirect firefighting, on the other hand, involves creating barriers or firebreaks around the wildfire to prevent it from spreading. This can include removing flammable material from the area, using heavy equipment to create trenches or other obstacles, and even starting small fires to burn up potential fuel and create a buffer zone.

Other techniques for controlling wildfires include using aerial firefighting resources such as helicopters and air tankers to drop water or fire retardant from above, and deploying specialized firefighting crews such as smokejumpers or hotshot crews to attack the fire from the ground.

Ultimately, the most effective approach to stopping a wildfire will depend on a range of factors, including the size and location of the fire, the weather conditions in the area, and the availability of resources and equipment. In some cases, it may not be possible to fully extinguish a wildfire, and the focus may shift to containing the blaze and protecting nearby communities and infrastructure.

Overall, effective wildfire suppression requires a coordinated and multi-faceted approach, involving the efforts of trained firefighters, emergency responders and other stakeholders. By working together and using a range of strategies and resources, it is possible to control and eventually extinguish even the most intense wildfires.

How To Prevent Wildfires

While it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of wildfires, there are steps that individuals, communities and governments can take to reduce the likelihood and severity of these disasters. Here are a few key strategies for preventing wildfires:

  1. Practice responsible fire safety: One of the most important steps in preventing wildfires is to be mindful of fire safety in your daily activities. This includes properly extinguishing campfires, avoiding outdoor burning during periods of high fire danger, and following local fire restrictions and regulations.
  2. Maintain your property: Another key way to prevent wildfires is to maintain your property to minimize the risk of ignition. This can include keeping vegetation and combustible materials away from structures, regularly clearing dead leaves and debris from roofs and gutters, and using fire-resistant building materials.
  3. Be aware of weather conditions: Wildfires are more likely to occur during hot, dry, and windy weather conditions. Stay informed about weather forecasts and wildfire risk levels, and adjust your activities and plans accordingly.
  4. Report any signs of fire: If you see smoke or fire in or near a forested area, report it immediately to the local authorities. Early detection and response can help prevent a small fire from turning into a larger, more destructive blaze.

By taking these and other steps to prevent wildfires, we can help protect our communities, our environment, and ourselves from the devastating impact of these disasters. A weather API can be a valuable tool in this effort, providing up-to-date information on weather conditions, fire danger levels, and other factors that can impact the likelihood and severity of wildfires. By using a weather API, governments, businesses, and individuals can make informed decisions about when to conduct outdoor activities, when to implement fire safety measures, and when to evacuate or take other emergency actions in the event of a wildfire.

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Thomas Eldridge
Meteomatics’ Weather API contains information about all of the most relevant weather parameters for wildfire risk mitigation. Sign up for a free trial now and see how you can use weather data in your area today!

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