By Hammond Green Team Members

Wildfires are unexpected and uncontrolled fires that occur in natural areas such as forests, savannas, and other wildlands. They are most common in rural areas and can spread quickly, destroying homes, killing humans and animals, devastating communities, and burning millions of acres at surprisingly fast rates.

Common on the West Coast, especially in California, wildfires frequently occur between June and September. The amount of land burned by these fires has doubled since the 1990s and is only going to worsen. Climate change is causing the United States to become hotter than ever, and with no drastic change, the rates are only going to increase. 

Several factors lead to the sparking of wildfires. First, heat, fuel, and oxygen are required for any fire to begin. The state of California has an abundance of these factors, leaving them particularly vulnerable to wildfires. Moreover, nearly 85 percent of wildfires are due to human activity. Sometimes, these are the product of discarded cigarettes, unattended campfires, burning debris, power lines falling, or even arson. 

Most wildfires that occur naturally are due to lightning strikes, although the spontaneous combustion of dead leaves and twigs can occur as well. Climate change is merely adding to this crisis. The length of fire seasons is increasing because of frequent droughts as well as hotter, drier climates. Without action, this problem will worsen, destroying agriculture, killing animals, damaging homes, and destroying lives.

Wildfires are notorious for consuming anything within their path since they can spread up to a rate of 6.7 miles per hour. According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), approximately 4.7 million acres of land were burned by wildfires in 2019—that’s 4.7 million acres of homes, businesses, farmland, forests, and wildlife habitats burned.

Because wildfires can take minutes to burn large quantities of land and several days to be put out, it is often difficult for people to prepare and gather their belongings without jeopardizing their safety. As a result, millions of dollars are spent trying to put out wildfires and recover from the damage that was left behind. 

Not only do wildfires cause financial damage, but they can also cause many diseases and illnesses. When wildfires burn, they release toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and non-methane organic compounds into the air. If these toxins are inhaled, it can cause damage to the lungs which can lead to chronic coughing, wheezing, and hospitalization for respiratory and cardiovascular-related diseases.

There have been countless wildfires throughout history that have ravaged millions of acres throughout the United States. However, there are a few that not only left behind miles and miles of blackened earth, but also a scar on society, the nation’s economy, and its civilians. One such fire broke out in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, consuming around 2 billion trees and killing nearly 1,200 people.

The fire originated in an unknown area in the dense Wisconsin forest. It first spread to the small village of Sugar Bush, killing every resident, and then raced northeast toward the nearby community of Peshtigo. Temperatures reached a scorching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing trees to literally explode in the flames. The Peshtigo Fire is considered one of the worst in U.S. history, and it may rightfully be so. 

Another notable forest fire is known as the Miramichi Fire, which devastated communities throughout much of northern New Brunswick, Canada and parts of Maine in October 1825. It ranks among the three largest forest fires ever recorded in North America, and once the blaze began, it moved forward with the wind at an estimated one mile per minute, destroying around 6,177 square miles of New Brunswick’s forests and killing hundreds of civilians.

Several factors culminated in this major fire, including a dry and arid summer of 1825 as well as a lack of rain. Both the Peshtigo Fire and Miramichi Fire are just a few of the most damaging and destructive wildfires to plague our country. 

Wildfires can be minimized and combated through numerous methods. Firefighters battle blazes by depriving them of one or more of fundamentals needed for a fire to spread. One traditional method is to douse existing fires with water and spray fire retardants. Firefighters also sometimes work in teams, called hotshots, to clear vegetation from the land around a fire to contain and eventually starve it of fuel. The resulting tracts of land are called firebreaks.

Firefighters may also employ controlled burning, creating backfires, to stop a wildfire. This method involves fighting fire with fire. These controlled fires remove undergrowth, brush, and litter from a forest, depriving a raging wildfire of its fuel.

However, this is how professionals fight fires, so what can we do? A few useful tactics include reporting unattended fires, extinguishing fire pits and campfires when you finish using them, using caution when handling flammable liquids, and remaining informed about forest fires in our area.

There are several ways in which wildfires can be beneficial. Naturally occurring wildfires can be dangerous to humans, yet they play an integral role in nature. The burning of decaying matter releases trapped nutrients in the soil which promotes new growth. Fire also acts as a disinfectant, removing disease-ridden plants and harmful insects from an ecosystem (Wolters 2019).

Wildfires can thin forest canopies and undergrowth, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and a new generation of seedlings to grow. Some species of trees, like sequoias, rely on fire for their seeds to open (Wolters 2019).

Moreover, fire has been used as a tool by certain native peoples in a ritual called cultural burning. Cultural burning is the intentional lighting of smaller, controlled fires to provide a desired cultural service, such as promoting the health of vegetation and animals that provide food, clothing, ceremonial items and more. Examples of Native American cultural burning can be found across the American landscape.

In the Appalachian forests of the Eastern United States, the dominance of oak and chestnut trees was the product of targeted burning that resulted in vigorous resprouting of the desired nut crops. The iconic tallgrass prairies of the Midwest were also likely cleared and maintained by indigenous burning as pasture land for herd animals. Anthropologists have identified at least 70 different uses of fire among indigenous and aboriginal peoples, including clearing travel routes, long-distance signaling, and hunting.

The benefits of wildfires are far from implausible and though the devastation caused by them is unbelievable there is light in the knowledge that wildfires can benefit our ecosystems and have been successfully controlled and used as a tool.