A wildfire or wildland fire is a fire in an area of combustible
vegetation that occurs in the countryside or rural area. Depending
on the type of vegetation where it occurs, a wildfire can also be
classified more specifically as a brush fire, bush fire, desert fire,
forest fire, grass fire, hill fire, peat fire, vegetation fire, or
Fossil charcoal indicates that wildfires began soon
after the appearance of terrestrial plants 420 million years ago.
Wildfire’s occurrence throughout the history of terrestrial life
invites conjecture that fire must have had pronounced evolutionary
effects on most ecosystems' flora and fauna. Earth is an
intrinsically flammable planet owing to its cover of carbon-rich
vegetation, seasonally dry climates, atmospheric oxygen, and
widespread lightning and volcanic ignitions.
Wildfires can be characterized in terms of the cause of ignition,
their physical properties, the combustible material present, and the
effect of weather on the fire. Wildfires can cause damage to
property and human life, but they have many beneficial effects on
native vegetation, animals, and ecosystems that have evolved with
fire. Many plant species depend on the effects of fire for
growth and reproduction. However, wildfire in ecosystems where
wildfire is uncommon or where non-native vegetation has encroached may
have negative ecological effects.
Wildfire behaviour and severity
result from the combination of factors such as available fuels,
physical setting, and weather. Analyses of historical
meteorological data and national fire records in western North America
show the primacy of climate in driving large regional fires via wet
periods that create substantial fuels or drought and warming that
extend conducive fire weather.
Strategies of wildfire prevention, detection, and suppression have
varied over the years. One common and inexpensive technique is
controlled burning: permitting or even igniting smaller fires to
minimize the amount of flammable material available for a potential
Vegetation may be burned periodically to maintain
high species diversity and frequent burning of surface fuels limits
fuel accumulation. Wildland fire use is the cheapest and most
ecologically appropriate policy for many forests. Fuels may also
be removed by logging, but fuels treatments and thinning have no
effect on severe fire behavior when under extreme weather
Wildfire itself is reportedly "the most effective
treatment for reducing a fire's rate of spread, fireline intensity,
flame length, and heat per unit of area" according to Jan Van
Wagtendonk, a biologist at the Yellowstone Field Station. Building
codes in fire-prone areas typically require that structures be built
of flame-resistant materials and a defensible space be maintained by
clearing flammable materials within a prescribed distance from the
3 Physical properties
4 Effect of weather
5.1 Plant adaptation
5.2 Atmospheric effects
6.1 Human involvement
9.1 Costs of wildfire suppression
9.2 Wildland firefighting safety
11 Human risk and exposure
11.1 Airborne hazards
11.2 Groups at risk
12 Health effects
13 See also
Forecasting South American fires.
UC Irvine scientist James Randerson discusses new research linking
ocean temperatures and fire-season severity.
Four major natural causes of wildfire ignitions exist:
sparks from rockfalls
The most common direct human causes of wildfire ignition include
arson, discarded cigarettes, power-line arcs (as detected by arc
mapping), and sparks from equipment. Ignition of wildland
fires via contact with hot rifle-bullet fragments is also possible
under the right conditions. Wildfires can also be started in
communities experiencing shifting cultivation, where land is cleared
quickly and farmed until the soil loses fertility, and slash and burn
clearing. Forested areas cleared by logging encourage the
dominance of flammable grasses, and abandoned logging roads overgrown
by vegetation may act as fire corridors. Annual grassland fires in
Vietnam stem in part from the destruction of forested areas
US military herbicides, explosives, and mechanical land-clearing
and -burning operations during the
The most common cause of wildfires varies throughout the world. In
Canada and northwest China, for example, lightning operates as the
major source of ignition. In other parts of the world, human
involvement is a major contributor. In Africa, Central America, Fiji,
Mexico, New Zealand, South America, and Southeast Asia, wildfires can
be attributed to human activities such as agriculture, animal
husbandry, and land-conversion burning. In China and in the
Mediterranean Basin, human carelessness is a major cause of
wildfires. In the
United States and Australia, the source of
wildfires can be traced both to lightning strikes and to human
activities (such as machinery sparks, cast-away cigarette butts, or
arson). Coal seam fires burn in the thousands around the
world, such as those in Burning Mountain, New South Wales; Centralia,
Pennsylvania; and several coal-sustained fires in China. They can also
flare up unexpectedly and ignite nearby flammable material.
A surface fire in the western desert of Utah, U.S.
Charred landscape following a crown fire in the North Cascades, U.S.
The spread of wildfires varies based on the flammable material
present, its vertical arrangement and moisture content, and weather
Fuel arrangement and density is governed in part by
topography, as land shape determines factors such as available
sunlight and water for plant growth. Overall, fire types can be
generally characterized by their fuels as follows:
Ground fires are fed by subterranean roots, duff and other buried
organic matter. This fuel type is especially susceptible to ignition
due to spotting. Ground fires typically burn by smoldering, and can
burn slowly for days to months, such as peat fires in
Eastern Sumatra, Indonesia, which resulted from a riceland creation
project that unintentionally drained and dried the peat.
Crawling or surface fires are fueled by low-lying vegetation on the
forest floor such as leaf and timber litter, debris, grass, and
low-lying shrubbery. This kind of fire often burns at a relatively
lower temperature than crown fires (less than 400 °C
(752 °F)) and may spread at slow rate, though steep slopes and
wind can accelerate the rate of spread.
Ladder fires consume material between low-level vegetation and tree
canopies, such as small trees, downed logs, and vines. Kudzu, Old
World climbing fern, and other invasive plants that scale trees may
also encourage ladder fires.
Crown, canopy, or aerial fires burn suspended material at the canopy
level, such as tall trees, vines, and mosses. The ignition of a crown
fire, termed crowning, is dependent on the density of the suspended
material, canopy height, canopy continuity, sufficient surface and
ladder fires, vegetation moisture content, and weather conditions
during the blaze. Stand-replacing fires lit by humans can spread
into the Amazon rain forest, damaging ecosystems not particularly
suited for heat or arid conditions.
Experimental fire in Canada
See also: Combustion,
Fire control, Extreme weather, and Firestorm
A dirt road acted as a fire barrier in South Africa. The effects of
the barrier can clearly be seen on the unburnt (left) and burnt
(right) sides of the road.
Wildfires occur when all of the necessary elements of a fire triangle
come together in a susceptible area: an ignition source is brought
into contact with a combustible material such as vegetation, that is
subjected to sufficient heat and has an adequate supply of oxygen from
the ambient air. A high moisture content usually prevents ignition and
slows propagation, because higher temperatures are required to
evaporate any water within the material and heat the material to its
fire point. Dense forests usually provide more shade,
resulting in lower ambient temperatures and greater humidity, and are
therefore less susceptible to wildfires. Less dense material such
as grasses and leaves are easier to ignite because they contain less
water than denser material such as branches and trunks. Plants
continuously lose water by evapotranspiration, but water loss is
usually balanced by water absorbed from the soil, humidity, or
rain. When this balance is not maintained, plants dry out and are
therefore more flammable, often a consequence of droughts.
A wildfire front is the portion sustaining continuous flaming
combustion, where unburned material meets active flames, or the
smoldering transition between unburned and burned material. As the
front approaches, the fire heats both the surrounding air and woody
material through convection and thermal radiation. First, wood is
dried as water is vaporized at a temperature of 100 °C
(212 °F). Next, the pyrolysis of wood at 230 °C
(450 °F) releases flammable gases. Finally, wood can smoulder at
380 °C (720 °F) or, when heated sufficiently, ignite at
590 °C (1,000 °F). Even before the flames of a
wildfire arrive at a particular location, heat transfer from the
wildfire front warms the air to 800 °C (1,470 °F), which
pre-heats and dries flammable materials, causing materials to ignite
faster and allowing the fire to spread faster.
High-temperature and long-duration surface wildfires may encourage
flashover or torching: the drying of tree canopies and their
subsequent ignition from below.
Wildfires have a rapid forward rate of spread (FROS) when burning
through dense, uninterrupted fuels. They can move as fast as 10.8
kilometres per hour (6.7 mph) in forests and 22 kilometres per
hour (14 mph) in grasslands. Wildfires can advance tangential
to the main front to form a flanking front, or burn in the opposite
direction of the main front by backing. They may also spread by
jumping or spotting as winds and vertical convection columns carry
firebrands (hot wood embers) and other burning materials through the
air over roads, rivers, and other barriers that may otherwise act as
firebreaks. Torching and fires in tree canopies encourage
spotting, and dry ground fuels that surround a wildfire are especially
vulnerable to ignition from firebrands. Spotting can create spot
fires as hot embers and firebrands ignite fuels downwind from the
fire. In Australian bushfires, spot fires are known to occur as far as
20 kilometres (12 mi) from the fire front.
Especially large wildfires may affect air currents in their immediate
vicinities by the stack effect: air rises as it is heated, and large
wildfires create powerful updrafts that will draw in new, cooler air
from surrounding areas in thermal columns. Great vertical
differences in temperature and humidity encourage pyrocumulus clouds,
strong winds, and fire whirls with the force of tornadoes at speeds of
more than 80 kilometres per hour (50 mph). Rapid
rates of spread, prolific crowning or spotting, the presence of fire
whirls, and strong convection columns signify extreme conditions.
The thermal heat from wildfire can cause significant weathering of
rocks and boulders, heat can rapidly expand a boulder and thermal
shock can occur, which may cause an object's structure to fail.
Effect of weather
Lightning-sparked wildfires are frequent occurrences during the dry
summer season in Nevada.
A wildfire in
Venezuela during a drought
Heat waves, droughts, cyclical climate changes such as El Niño, and
regional weather patterns such as high-pressure ridges can increase
the risk and alter the behavior of wildfires dramatically.
Years of precipitation followed by warm periods can encourage more
widespread fires and longer fire seasons. Since the mid-1980s,
earlier snowmelt and associated warming has also been associated with
an increase in length and severity of the wildfire season in the
Western United States.
Global warming may increase the intensity
and frequency of droughts in many areas, creating more intense and
frequent wildfires. A 2015 study indicates that the increase in
fire risk in California may be attributable to human-induced climate
change. A study of alluvial sediment deposits going back over
8,000 years found warmer climate periods experienced severe droughts
and stand-replacing fires and concluded climate was such a powerful
influence on wildfire that trying to recreate presettlement forest
structure is likely impossible in a warmer future.
Intensity also increases during daytime hours.
Burn rates of
smoldering logs are up to five times greater during the day due to
lower humidity, increased temperatures, and increased wind speeds.
Sunlight warms the ground during the day which creates air currents
that travel uphill. At night the land cools, creating air currents
that travel downhill. Wildfires are fanned by these winds and often
follow the air currents over hills and through valleys. Fires in
Europe occur frequently during the hours of 12:00 p.m. and
Wildfire suppression operations in the United
States revolve around a 24-hour fire day that begins at
10:00 a.m. due to the predictable increase in intensity resulting
from the daytime warmth.
Disturbance (ecology) and Forestry
Global fires during the year 2008 for the months of August (top image)
and February (bottom image), as detected by the Moderate Resolution
Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite.
Wildfire’s occurrence throughout the history of terrestrial life
invites conjecture that fire must have had pronounced evolutionary
effects on most ecosystems' flora and fauna. Wildfires are common
in climates that are sufficiently moist to allow the growth of
vegetation but feature extended dry, hot periods. Such places
include the vegetated areas of Australia and Southeast Asia, the veld
in southern Africa, the fynbos in the Western Cape of South Africa,
the forested areas of the
United States and Canada, and the
High-severity wildfire creates complex early seral forest habitat
(also called “snag forest habitat”), which often has higher
species richness and diversity than unburned old forest. Plant and
animal species in most types of North American forests evolved with
fire, and many of these species depend on wildfires, and particularly
high-severity fires, to reproduce and grow.
Fire helps to return
nutrients from plant matter back to soil, the heat from fire is
necessary to the germination of certain types of seeds, and the snags
(dead trees) and early successional forests created by high-severity
fire create habitat conditions that are beneficial to wildlife.
Early successional forests created by high-severity fire support some
of the highest levels of native biodiversity found in temperate
conifer forests. Post-fire logging has no ecological benefits
and many negative impacts; the same is often true for post-fire
Although some ecosystems rely on naturally occurring fires to regulate
growth, some ecosystems suffer from too much fire, such as the
chaparral in southern California and lower elevation deserts in the
American Southwest. The increased fire frequency in these ordinarily
fire-dependent areas has upset natural cycles, damaged native plant
communities, and encouraged the growth of non-native
weeds. Invasive species, such as Lygodium microphyllum
and Bromus tectorum, can grow rapidly in areas that were damaged by
fires. Because they are highly flammable, they can increase the future
risk of fire, creating a positive feedback loop that increases fire
frequency and further alters native vegetation communities.
In the Amazon Rainforest, drought, logging, cattle ranching practices,
and slash-and-burn agriculture damage fire-resistant forests and
promote the growth of flammable brush, creating a cycle that
encourages more burning. Fires in the rainforest threaten its
collection of diverse species and produce large amounts of CO2.
Also, fires in the rainforest, along with drought and human
involvement, could damage or destroy more than half of the Amazon
rainforest by the year 2030. Wildfires generate ash, destroy
available organic nutrients, and cause an increase in water runoff,
eroding away other nutrients and creating flash flood
conditions. A 2003 wildfire in the North Yorkshire Moors
destroyed 2.5 square kilometers (600 acres) of heather and the
underlying peat layers. Afterwards, wind erosion stripped the ash and
the exposed soil, revealing archaeological remains dating back to
10,000 BC. Wildfires can also have an effect on climate
change, increasing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere
and inhibiting vegetation growth, which affects overall carbon uptake
In tundra there is a natural pattern of accumulation of fuel and
wildfire which varies depending on the nature of vegetation and
terrain. Research in Alaska has shown fire-event return intervals,
(FRIs) that typically vary from 150 to 200 years with dryer lowland
areas burning more frequently than wetter upland areas.
Ecological succession after a wildfire in a boreal pine forest next to
Hara Bog, Lahemaa National Park, Estonia. The pictures were taken one
and two years after the fire.
Plants in wildfire-prone ecosystems often survive through adaptations
to their local fire regime. Such adaptations include physical
protection against heat, increased growth after a fire event, and
flammable materials that encourage fire and may eliminate competition.
For example, plants of the genus
Eucalyptus contain flammable oils
that encourage fire and hard sclerophyll leaves to resist heat and
drought, ensuring their dominance over less fire-tolerant
species. Dense bark, shedding lower branches, and high water
content in external structures may also protect trees from rising
temperatures. Fire-resistant seeds and reserve shoots that sprout
after a fire encourage species preservation, as embodied by pioneer
species. Smoke, charred wood, and heat can stimulate the germination
of seeds in a process called serotiny. Exposure to smoke from
burning plants promotes germination in other types of plants by
inducing the production of the orange butenolide.
Grasslands in Western Sabah, Malaysian pine forests, and Indonesian
Casuarina forests are believed to have resulted from previous periods
Chamise deadwood litter is low in water content and
flammable, and the shrub quickly sprouts after a fire. Cape lilies
lie dormant until flames brush away the covering, then blossom almost
overnight. Sequoia rely on periodic fires to reduce competition,
release seeds from their cones, and clear the soil and canopy for new
Bahamian pineyards have adapted to and
rely on low-intensity, surface fires for survival and growth. An
optimum fire frequency for growth is every 3 to 10 years. Too frequent
fires favor herbaceous plants, and infrequent fires favor species
typical of Bahamian dry forests.
See also: Air pollution, Atmospheric chemistry, Haze, 1997 Southeast
Asian haze, 2005 Malaysian haze, and Carbon cycle
Pyrocumulus cloud produced by a wildfire in Yellowstone National
Most of the Earth's weather and air pollution resides in the
troposphere, the part of the atmosphere that extends from the surface
of the planet to a height of about 10 kilometers (6 mi). The
vertical lift of a severe thunderstorm or pyrocumulonimbus can be
enhanced in the area of a large wildfire, which can propel smoke,
soot, and other particulate matter as high as the lower
stratosphere. Previously, prevailing scientific theory held that
most particles in the stratosphere came from volcanoes, but smoke and
other wildfire emissions have been detected from the lower
stratosphere. Pyrocumulus clouds can reach 6,100 meters
(20,000 ft) over wildfires. Satellite observation of smoke
plumes from wildfires revealed that the plumes could be traced intact
for distances exceeding 1,600 kilometers (1,000 mi).
Computer-aided models such as
CALPUFF may help predict the size and
direction of wildfire-generated smoke plumes by using atmospheric
Wildfires can affect local atmospheric pollution, and release
carbon in the form of carbon dioxide.
Wildfire emissions contain
fine particulate matter which can cause cardiovascular and respiratory
problems. Increased fire byproducts in the troposphere can
increase ozone concentration beyond safe levels.
Forest fires in
Indonesia in 1997 were estimated to have released between 0.81 and
2.57 gigatonnes (0.89 and 2.83 billion short tons) of CO2 into the
atmosphere, which is between 13%–40% of the annual global carbon
dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Atmospheric
models suggest that these concentrations of sooty particles could
increase absorption of incoming solar radiation during winter months
by as much as 15%.
National map of groundwater and soil moisture in the
United States of
America. It shows the very low soil moisture associated with the 2011
fire season in Texas.
Smoke trail from a fire seen while looking towards Dargo from Swifts
Creek, Victoria, Australia, 11 January 2007
Fossil record of fire
In the Welsh Borders, the first evidence of wildfire is rhyniophytoid
plant fossils preserved as charcoal, dating to the
(about 420 million years ago). Smoldering surface fires started
to occur sometime before the Early
Devonian period 405 million
years ago. Low atmospheric oxygen during the Middle and Late Devonian
was accompanied by a decrease in charcoal abundance.
Additional charcoal evidence suggests that fires continued through the
Carboniferous period. Later, the overall increase of atmospheric
oxygen from 13% in the Late
Devonian to 30-31% by the
Late Permian was
accompanied by a more widespread distribution of wildfires.
Later, a decrease in wildfire-related charcoal deposits from the late
Permian to the
Triassic periods is explained by a decrease in oxygen
Wildfires during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic periods followed patterns
similar to fires that occur in modern times. Surface fires driven by
dry seasons[clarification needed] are evident in
Carboniferous progymnosperm forests.
Lepidodendron forests dating to
Carboniferous period have charred peaks, evidence of crown fires.
In Jurassic gymnosperm forests, there is evidence of high frequency,
light surface fires. The increase of fire activity in the late
Tertiary is possibly due to the increase of C4-type grasses. As
these grasses shifted to more mesic habitats, their high flammability
increased fire frequency, promoting grasslands over woodlands.
However, fire-prone habitats may have contributed to the prominence of
trees such as those of the genera Eucalyptus, Pinus and Sequoia, which
have thick bark to withstand fires and employ serotiny.
See also: Control of fire by early humans, Deforestation
§ Historical causes, Environmental history, History of
firefighting, and Native American use of fire
Aerial view of deliberate wildfires on the Khun Tan Range, Thailand.
These fires are lit by local farmers every year in order to promote
the growth of a certain mushroom
The human use of fire for agricultural and hunting purposes during the
Mesolithic ages altered the preexisting landscapes and
fire regimes. Woodlands were gradually replaced by smaller vegetation
that facilitated travel, hunting, seed-gathering and planting. In
recorded human history, minor allusions to wildfires were mentioned in
Bible and by classical writers such as Homer. However, while
ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Roman writers were aware of fires, they
were not very interested in the uncultivated lands where wildfires
occurred. Wildfires were used in battles throughout human
history as early thermal weapons. From the Middle ages, accounts were
written of occupational burning as well as customs and laws that
governed the use of fire. In Germany, regular burning was documented
in 1290 in the
Odenwald and in 1344 in the Black Forest. In the
14th century Sardinia, firebreaks were used for wildfire protection.
In Spain during the 1550s, sheep husbandry was discouraged in certain
provinces by Philip II due to the harmful effects of fires used in
transhumance. As early as the 17th century, Native Americans
were observed using fire for many purposes including cultivation,
signaling, and warfare. Scottish botanist David Douglas noted the
native use of fire for tobacco cultivation, to encourage deer into
smaller areas for hunting purposes, and to improve foraging for honey
Charcoal found in sedimentary deposits off the
Pacific coast of Central America suggests that more burning occurred
in the 50 years before the
Spanish colonization of the Americas
Spanish colonization of the Americas than
after the colonization. In the post-World War II Baltic region,
socio-economic changes led more stringent air quality standards and
bans on fires that eliminated traditional burning practices. In
the mid-19th century, explorers from the
HMS Beagle observed
Australian Aborigines using fire for ground clearing, hunting, and
regeneration of plant food in a method later named fire-stick
farming. Such careful use of fire has been employed for centuries
in the lands protected by
Kakadu National Park
Kakadu National Park to encourage
Wildfires typically occurred during periods of increased temperature
and drought. An increase in fire-related debris flow in alluvial fans
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park was linked to the period
between AD 1050 and 1200, coinciding with the Medieval Warm
Period. However, human influence caused an increase in fire
Dendrochronological fire scar data and charcoal layer data
Finland suggests that, while many fires occurred during severe
drought conditions, an increase in the number of fires during 850 BC
and 1660 AD can be attributed to human influence. Charcoal
evidence from the Americas suggested a general decrease in wildfires
between 1 AD and 1750 compared to previous years. However, a period of
increased fire frequency between 1750 and 1870 was suggested by
charcoal data from North America and Asia, attributed to human
population growth and influences such as land clearing practices. This
period was followed by an overall decrease in burning in the 20th
century, linked to the expansion of agriculture, increased livestock
grazing, and fire prevention efforts. A meta-analysis found that
17 times more land burned annually in California before 1800 compared
to recent decades (1,800,000 hectares/year compared to 102,000
According to a paper published in Science, the number of natural and
human-caused fires decreased by 24.3% between 1998 and 2015.
Researchers explain this a transition from nomadism to settled
lifestyle and intensification of agriculture that lead to a drop in
the use of fire for land clearing.
Invasive species moved by humans have in some cases increased the
intensity of wildfires, such as
Eucalyptus in California and gamba
grass in Australia.
Smokey Bear poster with part of his admonition, "Only you can
prevent forest fires".
Wildfire prevention refers to the preemptive methods aimed at reducing
the risk of fires as well as lessening its severity and spread.
Prevention techniques aim to manage air quality, maintain ecological
balances, protect resources, and to affect future fires.
North American firefighting policies permit naturally caused fires to
burn to maintain their ecological role, so long as the risks of escape
into high-value areas are mitigated. However, prevention policies
must consider the role that humans play in wildfires, since, for
example, 95% of forest fires in Europe are related to human
involvement. Sources of human-caused fire may include arson,
accidental ignition, or the uncontrolled use of fire in land-clearing
and agriculture such as the slash-and-burn farming in Southeast
In 1937, U.S. President
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a nationwide
fire prevention campaign, highlighting the role of human carelessness
in forest fires. Later posters of the program featured Uncle Sam,
characters from the Disney movie Bambi, and the official mascot of the
Forest Service, Smokey Bear. Reducing human-caused ignitions
may be the most effective means of reducing unwanted wildfire.
Alteration of fuels is commonly undertaken when attempting to affect
future fire risk and behavior.
Wildfire prevention programs around
the world may employ techniques such as wildland fire use and
prescribed or controlled burns. Wildland fire use refers to
any fire of natural causes that is monitored but allowed to burn.
Controlled burns are fires ignited by government agencies under less
dangerous weather conditions.
A prescribed burn in a
Pinus nigra stand in Portugal
Vegetation may be burned periodically to maintain high species
diversity and frequent burning of surface fuels limits fuel
accumulation. Wildland fire use is the cheapest and most
ecologically appropriate policy for many forests. Fuels may also
be removed by logging, but fuels treatments and thinning have no
effect on severe fire behavior
Wildfire models are often used to
predict and compare the benefits of different fuel treatments on
future wildfire spread, but their accuracy is low.
Wildfire itself is reportedly "the most effective treatment for
reducing a fire's rate of spread, fireline intensity, flame length,
and heat per unit of area" according to Jan van Wagtendonk, a
biologist at the Yellowstone Field Station.
Building codes in fire-prone areas typically require that structures
be built of flame-resistant materials and a defensible space be
maintained by clearing flammable materials within a prescribed
distance from the structure. Communities in the Philippines
also maintain fire lines 5 to 10 meters (16 to 33 ft) wide
between the forest and their village, and patrol these lines during
summer months or seasons of dry weather. Continued residential
development in fire-prone areas and rebuilding structures destroyed by
fires has been met with criticism. The ecological benefits of
fire are often overridden by the economic and safety benefits of
protecting structures and human life.
See also: Remote sensing
Fire Lookout in the Ochoco National Forest, Oregon, circa
Fast and effective detection is a key factor in wildfire
fighting. Early detection efforts were focused on early response,
accurate results in both daytime and nighttime, and the ability to
prioritize fire danger.
Fire lookout towers were used in the
United States in the early 20th century and fires were reported using
telephones, carrier pigeons, and heliographs. Aerial and land
photography using instant cameras were used in the 1950s until
infrared scanning was developed for fire detection in the 1960s.
However, information analysis and delivery was often delayed by
limitations in communication technology. Early satellite-derived fire
analyses were hand-drawn on maps at a remote site and sent via
overnight mail to the fire manager. During the Yellowstone fires of
1988, a data station was established in West Yellowstone, permitting
the delivery of satellite-based fire information in approximately four
Currently, public hotlines, fire lookouts in towers, and ground and
aerial patrols can be used as a means of early detection of forest
fires. However, accurate human observation may be limited by operator
fatigue, time of day, time of year, and geographic location.
Electronic systems have gained popularity in recent years as a
possible resolution to human operator error. A government report on a
recent trial of three automated camera fire detection systems in
Australia did, however, conclude "...detection by the camera systems
was slower and less reliable than by a trained human observer". These
systems may be semi- or fully automated and employ systems based on
the risk area and degree of human presence, as suggested by GIS data
analyses. An integrated approach of multiple systems can be used to
merge satellite data, aerial imagery, and personnel position via
Global Positioning System
Global Positioning System (GPS) into a collective whole for
near-realtime use by wireless Incident Command Centers.
A small, high risk area that features thick vegetation, a strong human
presence, or is close to a critical urban area can be monitored using
a local sensor network. Detection systems may include wireless sensor
networks that act as automated weather systems: detecting temperature,
humidity, and smoke. These may be battery-powered,
solar-powered, or tree-rechargeable: able to recharge their battery
systems using the small electrical currents in plant material.
Larger, medium-risk areas can be monitored by scanning towers that
incorporate fixed cameras and sensors to detect smoke or additional
factors such as the infrared signature of carbon dioxide produced by
fires. Additional capabilities such as night vision, brightness
detection, and color change detection may also be incorporated into
Wildfires across the
Balkans in late July 2007 (
Satellite and aerial monitoring through the use of planes, helicopter,
or UAVs can provide a wider view and may be sufficient to monitor very
large, low risk areas. These more sophisticated systems employ GPS and
aircraft-mounted infrared or high-resolution visible cameras to
identify and target wildfires. Satellite-mounted sensors
such as Envisat's Advanced Along Track Scanning Radiometer and
European Remote-Sensing Satellite's Along-Track Scanning Radiometer
can measure infrared radiation emitted by fires, identifying hot spots
greater than 39 °C (102 °F). The National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hazard Mapping System
combines remote-sensing data from satellite sources such as
Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite
Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES),
Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer
Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), and Advanced
Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) for detection of fire and
smoke plume locations. However, satellite detection is prone
to offset errors, anywhere from 2 to 3 kilometers (1 to 2 mi) for
MODIS and AVHRR data and up to 12 kilometers (7.5 mi) for GOES
data. Satellites in geostationary orbits may become disabled, and
satellites in polar orbits are often limited by their short window of
observation time. Cloud cover and image resolution and may also limit
the effectiveness of satellite imagery.
in 2015 a new fire detection tool is in operation at the U.S.
Forest Service (USFS) which uses data
from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite to
detect smaller fires in more detail than previous space-based
products. The high-resolution data is used with a computer model to
predict how a fire will change direction based on weather and land
conditions. The active fire detection product using data from Suomi
Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite
Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) increases the
resolution of fire observations to 1,230 feet (375 meters). Previous
NASA satellite data products available since the early 2000s observed
fires at 3,280 foot (1 kilometer) resolution. The data is one of the
intelligence tools used by the USFS and Department of Interior
agencies across the
United States to guide resource allocation and
strategic fire management decisions. The enhanced VIIRS fire product
enables detection every 12 hours or less of much smaller fires and
provides more detail and consistent tracking of fire lines during long
duration wildfires – capabilities critical for early warning systems
and support of routine mapping of fire progression. Active fire
locations are available to users within minutes from the satellite
overpass through data processing facilities at the USFS Remote Sensing
Applications Center, which uses technologies developed by the NASA
Goddard Space Flight Center Direct Readout Laboratory in Greenbelt,
Maryland. The model uses data on weather conditions and the land
surrounding an active fire to predict 12–18 hours in advance whether
a blaze will shift direction. The state of Colorado decided to
incorporate the weather-fire model in its firefighting efforts
beginning with the 2016 fire season.
In 2014, an international campaign was organized in South Africa's
Kruger National Park to validate fire detection products including the
new VIIRS active fire data. In advance of that campaign, the Meraka
Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in
Pretoria, South Africa, an early adopter of the VIIRS 375m fire
product, put it to use during several large wildfires in Kruger.
The demand for timely, high-quality fire information has increased in
recent years. Wildfires in the
United States burn an average of 7
million acres of land each year. For the last 10 years, the USFS and
Department of Interior have spent a combined average of about $2–4
billion annually on wildfire suppression.
See also: Firefighting
A Russian firefighter extinguishing a wildfire
Wildfire suppression depends on the technologies available in the area
in which the wildfire occurs. In less developed nations the techniques
used can be as simple as throwing sand or beating the fire with sticks
or palm fronds. In more advanced nations, the suppression methods
vary due to increased technological capacity.
Silver iodide can be
used to encourage snow fall, while fire retardants and water can
be dropped onto fires by unmanned aerial vehicles, planes, and
helicopters. Complete fire suppression is no longer an
expectation, but the majority of wildfires are often extinguished
before they grow out of control. While more than 99% of the 10,000 new
wildfires each year are contained, escaped wildfires under extreme
weather conditions are difficult to suppress without a change in the
weather. Wildfires in
Canada and the US burn an average of 54,500
square kilometers (13,000,000 acres) per year.
Above all, fighting wildfires can become deadly. A wildfire's burning
front may also change direction unexpectedly and jump across fire
breaks. Intense heat and smoke can lead to disorientation and loss of
appreciation of the direction of the fire, which can make fires
particularly dangerous. For example, during the 1949 Mann Gulch fire
in Montana, USA, thirteen smokejumpers died when they lost their
communication links, became disoriented, and were overtaken by the
fire. In the Australian February 2009 Victorian bushfires, at
least 173 people died and over 2,029 homes and 3,500 structures were
lost when they became engulfed by wildfire.
Costs of wildfire suppression
In California, the U.S.
Forest Service spends about $200 million per
year to suppress 98% of wildfires and up to $1 billion to suppress the
other 2% of fires that escape initial attack and become large.
Wildland firefighting safety
Wildfire fighters cutting down a tree using a chainsaw
Wildland fire fighters face several life-threatening hazards including
heat stress, fatigue, smoke and dust, as well as the risk of other
injuries such as burns, cuts and scrapes, animal bites, and even
Especially in hot weather condition, fires present the risk of heat
stress, which can entail feeling heat, fatigue, weakness, vertigo,
headache, or nausea.
Heat stress can progress into heat strain, which
entails physiological changes such as increased heart rate and core
body temperature. This can lead to heat-related illnesses, such as
heat rash, cramps, exhaustion or heat stroke. Various factors can
contribute to the risks posed by heat stress, including strenuous
work, personal risk factors such as age and fitness, dehydration,
sleep deprivation, and burdensome personal protective equipment. Rest,
cool water, and occasional breaks are crucial to mitigating the
effects of heat stress.
Smoke, ash, and debris can also pose serious respiratory hazards to
wildland fire fighters. The smoke and dust from wildfires can contain
gases such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and formaldehyde, as
well as particulates such as ash and silica. To reduce smoke exposure,
wildfire fighting crews should, whenever possible, rotate firefighters
through areas of heavy smoke, avoid downwind firefighting, use
equipment rather than people in holding areas, and minimize mop-up.
Camps and command posts should also be located upwind of wildfires.
Protective clothing and equipment can also help minimize exposure to
smoke and ash.
Firefighters are also at risk of cardiac events including strokes and
Fire fighters should maintain good physical fitness.
Fitness programs, medical screening and examination programs which
include stress tests can minimize the risks of firefighting cardiac
problems. Other injury hazards wildland fire fighters face
include slips, trips and falls, burns, scrapes and cuts from tools and
equipment, being struck by trees, vehicles, or other objects, plant
hazards such as thorns and poison ivy, snake and animal bites, vehicle
crashes, electrocution from power lines or lightning storms, and
unstable building structures.
Fire retardants are used to slow wildfires by inhibiting combustion.
They are aqueous solutions of ammonium phosphates and ammonium
sulfates, as well as thickening agents. The decision to apply
retardant depends on the magnitude, location and intensity of the
wildfire. In certain instances, fire retardant may also be applied as
a precautionary fire defense measure.
Typical fire retardants contain the same agents as fertilizers. Fire
retardant may also affect water quality through leaching,
eutrophication, or misapplication.
Fire retardant's effects on
drinking water remain inconclusive. Dilution factors, including
water body size, rainfall, and water flow rates lessen the
concentration and potency of fire retardant.
Wildfire debris (ash
and sediment) clog rivers and reservoirs increasing the risk for
floods and erosion that ultimately slow and/or damage water treatment
systems. There is continued concern of fire retardant
effects on land, water, wildlife habitats, and watershed quality,
additional research is needed. However, on the positive side, fire
retardant (specifically its nitrogen and phosphorus components) has
been shown to have a fertilizing effect on nutrient-deprived soils and
thus creates a temporary increase in vegetation.
Current USDA procedure maintains that the aerial application of fire
retardant in the
United States must clear waterways by a minimum of
300 feet in order to safeguard effects of retardant runoff. Aerial
uses of fire retardant are required to avoid application near
waterways and endangered species (plant and animal habitats). After
any incident of fire retardant misapplication, the U.S.
requires reporting and assessment impacts be made in order to
determine mitigation, remediation, and/or restrictions on future
retardant uses in that area.
Fire Propagation Model
Wildfire modeling is concerned with numerical simulation of wildfires
in order to comprehend and predict fire behavior. Wildfire
modeling aims to aid wildfire suppression, increase the safety of
firefighters and the public, and minimize damage. Using computational
science, wildfire modeling involves the statistical analysis of past
fire events to predict spotting risks and front behavior. Various
wildfire propagation models have been proposed in the past, including
simple ellipses and egg- and fan-shaped models. Early attempts to
determine wildfire behavior assumed terrain and vegetation uniformity.
However, the exact behavior of a wildfire's front is dependent on a
variety of factors, including windspeed and slope steepness. Modern
growth models utilize a combination of past ellipsoidal descriptions
Huygens' Principle to simulate fire growth as a continuously
Extreme value theory
Extreme value theory may also be used to
predict the size of large wildfires. However, large fires that exceed
suppression capabilities are often regarded as statistical outliers in
standard analyses, even though fire policies are more influenced by
large wildfires than by small fires.
2003 Canberra firestorm
Human risk and exposure
2009 California Wildfires at NASA/JPL – Pasadena, California
Wildfire risk is the chance that a wildfire will start in or reach a
particular area and the potential loss of human values if it does.
Risk is dependent on variable factors such as human activities,
weather patterns, availability of wildfire fuels, and the availability
or lack of resources to suppress a fire. Wildfires have
continually been a threat to human populations. However, human induced
geographical and climatic changes are exposing populations more
frequently to wildfires and increasing wildfire risk. It is speculated
that the increase in wildfires arises from a century of wildfire
suppression coupled with the rapid expansion of human developments
into fire-prone wildlands. Wildfires are naturally occurring
events that aid in promoting forest health.
Global warming and climate
changes are causing an increase in temperatures and more droughts
nationwide which contributes to an increase in wildfire
The most noticeable adverse effect of wildfires is the destruction of
property. However, the release of hazardous chemicals from the burning
of wildland fuels also significantly impacts health in humans.
Wildfire smoke is composed primarily of carbon dioxide and water
vapor. Other common smoke components present in lower concentrations
are carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, acrolein, polyaromatic
hydrocarbons, and benzene. Small particulates suspended in air
which come in solid form or in liquid droplets are also present in
smoke. 80 -90% of wildfire smoke, by mass, is within the fine particle
size class of 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller.
Despite carbon dioxide's high concentration in smoke, it poses a low
health risk due to its low toxicity. Rather, carbon monoxide and fine
particulate matter, particularly 2.5 µm in diameter and smaller,
have been identified as the major health threats. Other chemicals
are considered to be significant hazards but are found in
concentrations that are too low to cause detectable health effects.
The degree of wildfire smoke exposure to an individual is dependent on
the length, severity, duration, and proximity of the fire. People are
exposed directly to smoke via the respiratory tract though inhalation
of air pollutants. Indirectly, communities are exposed to wildfire
debris that can contaminate soil and water supplies.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the Air
Quality Index (AQI), a public resource that provides national air
quality standard concentrations for common air pollutants. The public
can use this index as a tool to determine their exposure to hazardous
air pollutants based on visibility range.
Groups at risk
Firefighters are at the greatest risk for acute and chronic health
effects resulting from wildfire smoke exposure. Due to firefighters'
occupational duties, they are frequently exposed to hazardous
chemicals at a close proximity for longer periods of time. A case
study on the exposure of wildfire smoke among wildland firefighters
shows that firefighters are exposed to significant levels of carbon
monoxide and respiratory irritants above OSHA-permissible exposure
limits (PEL) and ACGIH threshold limit values (TLV). 5–10% are
overexposed. The study obtained exposure concentrations for one
wildland firefighter over a 10-hour shift spent holding down a
fireline. The firefighter was exposed to a wide range of carbon
monoxide and respiratory irritant (combination of particulate matter
3.5 µm and smaller, acrolein, and formaldehype) levels. Carbon
monoxide levels reached up to 160ppm and the TLV irritant index value
reached a high of 10. In contrast, the OSHA PEL for carbon monoxide is
30ppm and for the TLV respiratory irritant index, the calculated
threshold limit value is 1; any value above 1 exceeds exposure
Between 2001 and 2012, over 200 fatalities occurred among wildland
firefighters. In addition to heat and chemical hazards, firefighters
are also at risk for electrocution from power lines; injuries from
equipment; slips, trips, and falls; injuries from vehicle rollovers;
heat-related illness; insect bites and stings; stress; and
Residents in communities surrounding wildfires are exposed to lower
concentrations of chemicals, but they are at a greater risk for
indirect exposure through water or soil contamination. Exposure to
residents is greatly dependent on individual susceptibility.
Vulnerable persons such as children (ages 0–4), the elderly (ages 65
and older), smokers, and pregnant women are at an increased risk due
to their already compromised body systems, even when the exposures are
present at low chemical concentrations and for relatively short
Additionally, there is evidence of an increase in material stress, as
documented by researchers M.H. O'Donnell and A.M. Behie, thus
affecting birth outcomes. In Australia, studies show that male infants
born with drastically higher average birth weights were born in mostly
severely fire-affected areas. This is attributed to the fact that
maternal signals directly affect fetal growth patterns.
See also: Atmospheric particulate matter
Animation of diaphragmatic breathing with the diaphragm shown in green
Inhalation of smoke from a wildfire can be a health hazard. Wildfire
smoke is composed of carbon dioxide, water vapor, particulate matter,
organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides and other compounds. The principal
health concern is the inhalation of particulate matter and carbon
Particulate matter (PM) is a type of air pollution made up of
particles of dust and liquid droplets. They are characterized into two
categories based on the diameter of the particle. Coarse particles are
between 2.5 micrometers and 10 micrometers and fine particles measure
2.5 micrometers and less. Both sizes can be inhaled. Coarse particles
are filtered by the upper airways and can cause eye and sinus
irritation as well as sore throat and coughing. The fine particles are
more problematic because, when inhaled, they can be deposited deep
into the lungs, where they are absorbed into the bloodstream. This is
particularly hazardous to the very young, elderly and those with
chronic conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary
disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis and cardiovascular conditions. The
illnesses most commonly with exposure to fine particle from wildfire
smoke are bronchitis, exacerbation of asthma or COPD, and pneumonia.
Symptoms of these complications include wheezing and shortness of
breath and cardiovascular symptoms include chest pain, rapid heart
rate and fatigue.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that can be found at
the highest concentration at close proximity to a smoldering fire. For
this reason, carbon monoxide inhalation is a serious threat to the
health of wildfire firefighters. CO in smoke can be inhaled into the
lungs where it is absorbed into the bloodstream and reduces oxygen
delivery to the body's vital organs. At high concentrations, it can
cause headache, weakness, dizziness, confusion, nausea,
disorientation, visual impairment, coma and even death. However, even
at lower concentrations, such as those found at wildfires, individuals
with cardiovascular disease may experience chest pain and cardiac
arrhythmia. A recent study tracking the number and cause of
wildfire firefighter deaths from 1990–2006 found that 21.9% of the
deaths occurred from heart attacks.
Another important and somewhat less obvious health effect of wildfires
is psychiatric diseases and disorders. Both adults and children from
countries ranging from the
United States and
Canada to Greece and
Australia who were directly and indirectly affected by wildfires were
found by researchers to demonstrate several different mental
conditions linked to their experience with the wildfires. These
include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety,
In a new twist to wildfire health effects, former uranium mining sites
were burned over in the summer of 2012 near North Fork, Idaho. This
prompted concern from area residents and Idaho State Department of
Environmental Quality officials over the potential spread of radiation
in the resultant smoke, since those sites had never been completely
cleaned up from radioactive remains.
The EPA has defined acceptable concentrations of particulate matter in
the air, through the National Ambient Air Quality Standards and
monitoring of ambient air quality has been mandated. Due to these
monitoring programs and the incidence of several large wildfires near
populated areas, epidemiological studies have been conducted and
demonstrate an association between human health effects and an
increase in fine particulate matter due to wildfire smoke.
An increase in PM emitted from the Hayman fire in Colorado in June
2002, was associated with an increase in respiratory symptoms in
patients with COPD. Looking at the wildfires in Southern
California in October 2003 in a similar manner, investigators have
shown an increase in hospital admissions due to asthma during peak
concentrations of PM. Children participating in the Children's
Health Study were also found to have an increase in eye and
respiratory symptoms, medication use and physician visits.
Recently, it was demonstrated that mothers who were pregnant during
the fires gave birth to babies with a slightly reduced average birth
weight compared to those who were not exposed to wildfire during
birth. Suggesting that pregnant women may also be at greater risk to
adverse effects from wildfire. Worldwide it is estimated that
339,000 people die due to the effects of wildfire smoke each
List of wildfires
Bushfires in Australia
Wildfires in the United States
Floods and landslides after wildfires
Forest fire weather index
Fire Danger Rating System
Remote Automated Weather Station
Women in firefighting
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Volunteer fire department
Women in firefighting
List of fire departments
Fire lookout tower
Airport crash tender
Fire chief's vehicle
Light and air
Hard suction hose
Hydraulic rescue tools
Hydraulic rescue tools ("Jaws of life")
Thermal imaging camera
Dead man zone
Gaseous fire suppression
Stop, drop and roll
Fire engine red
Fire protection engineering
Geography of firefighting
History of firefighting
International Association of
International Firefighters' Day
List of firefighting films
World Firefighters Games
World Police and
Fire lookout tower
Fire retardant gel
Wildland fire engine
Wildland water tender
Wildfire suppression equipment and personnel
United States (California, Washington)
Glossary of wildfire terms
List of wildfires
Close to nature forestry
Woodland Carbon Code
Growth and yield modelling
pulp and paper
Wood process engineer
Fast radio burst
Cosmic rays (Ultra-high-energy cosmic ray)
Solar proton event
Coronal mass ejection
Tidal disruption event
Heat death of the universe
False vacuum metastability event
Control of fire by early humans
Native American use of fire
Death by burning
Flame Research Foundation
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