Wild Fire Preparedness

What is a Wildfire?

A wildfire, just as the name implies is a fire that takes place in the wildlands. It can be a brushfire or it may encompass forests. In some cases wildfires burn for weeks or months before they can be extinguished. In just the first half of 2013, the wildfires that attacked Colorado were the worst in history and were determined to be caused by human mistake or arson.

A wildfire is termed many different things, largely depending on the kind of fuel that it consumes. It can be called a brush fire, a bushfire, a desert fire, a forest fire, a peat fire, a vegetation fire, a veldfire, a grass fire. They often cover extensive areas, many miles in fact. They may jump ditches, rivers, roads, creeks, firebreaks or other things which would stop an ordinary fire. The weather can have a vast effect on a wildland fire and it can take homes, property and lives. Wildfires can be prevented to some extent when man made, but in some cases, they cannot be stopped.

2009 California Wildfires
Figure 1 View of JPL with the 2009 California wildfires behind and the efforts to extinguish the blaze. Panorma taken by Dom Riccobene in Pasadena, CA off of the 210 highway. GNU Free Documentation License

Where do Wildfires Take Place?

Wildland fires are prevalent around the United States. Just a few wildfire facts are that while they are more likely to take place in heavily wooded states such as:

  • Pennsylvania
  • Ohio
  • New York
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Colorado
  • California
  • Arizona
  • Utah
  • Idaho
  • Oregon
  • Washington

They can take place--and have done so-- in every state in the United States. They are primarily seen and do the most damage in the southern and western aspects of the United States but they are widely spread and can attack any area at any time. In fact, wildfires have taken place in every single area of the world with just a few exceptions such as Antarctica. They are common in Australia and in the peat bogs of the UK but they can take place anywhere and may even occur during the winter months. While many people believe themselves to be safe from a wildfire, no area is truly so. One example of this is western Iceland, where in late March 2006, a large fire broke out in the grasses of a wetland area, which had been dried out by a period of persistent north winds. Wildfires in Alaska also burn hundreds of thousands of acres every year.

Significant Wildfires in Recent History

Wildfire in CaliforniaCalifornia Wildfire in 2008. This image is a work of a Bureau of Land Management* employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Just a few examples of wildfires which have taken place that have cost millions of dollars in damage are provided here. Many hundreds take place every year all over the USA. In North America wildland fires can be horrific, taking property and lives. Some of the most prolific and the worst fires through history include.

  • In 1894 in Minnesota USA a wildfire killed 418 people and destroyed twelve small towns.
  • In 1948 more than 4,500 acres were burned by the Mann Gulch fire in Montana which killed 13 firefighters.
  • In 1950 and 1951, New Mexico was hit both hears. 17,000 acres burned the first year in the Capitan Gap fire while in 1951 the McKnight fire took another 50,000 acres of wilderness.
  • In 2012 wildfires in Idaho, California, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas destroyed several hundred thousand acres and cost more than a billion dollars in damages.
  • In 2013 thus far there are fires burning in Colorado, with one already becoming the largest and most costly fire in the history of the state.

Preparation for a wildland fire

If you are in an area where wildfires are prevalent there are some steps that you can take to keep your home and property as safe as possible.

  • One of these steps, which is among the most important is to use firewise landscaping when creating your home and outdoor areas. Firewise landscaping is a relatively new methodology that takes into account the fact that fires do take place. For those who are living in fire prone areas they can help you to keep your home more secure. Simple ideas such as making sure that you leave a fire break area between landscaping and your home will help tremendously. Fill the area with rocks or other non flammables.
  • Make sure that nothing which is flammable is hanging over your home in order to prevent branches from dropping onto the home and setting it alight.
  • Keep a good water hose or water source outside your home in order to wet down the house and the area prior to any fire that may take place or be in the area.
  • Have automatic sprinklers installed in your home if possible and a sprinkler system available outdoors. Wetting down the area surrounding your home may be very helpful. While it won't prevent the fire from taking your home, it can prevent total loss in some cases.
  • Have a wildfire preparedness kit packed during fire season that will be readily found and picked up when or if you are given an order for evacuation. Most people keep a travelers check or a prepaid credit card, a few changes of clothing, water and energy bars of some type inside the bag. One other idea may be to purchase a fire blanket to keep inside the bag. While that's a worse case scenario, it's usually best to have something that you don't need.

In many cases a fire is something that you can't stop and may not survive. Leaving is always preferable to losing your life. Never remain in a fire area when a wildland fire is buring after you have been told to evacuate.
Recovery from a fire will depend upon the scenario and the depth of the fire. It may or may not burn your home and property. In many cases your own choice will be to rebuild and begin again. Suffice it to say that having approached the fire properly and evacuated when told it is necessary to do so means that your life is spared and there is very little that is as important as this in the end run.