The Why Behind Wildfires

photo courtesy of google images

     This past decade will go down in history as one of the hottest on record, and it also came with record-breaking fires—fires that forced employees out of workplaces, animals out of natural habitats and families out of homes. But how do fires get to this point of destruction? How do they grow so strong that structures once standing are soon nothing but ash? Firefighters call the perfect storm that creates these natural disasters the fire triangle.

    The fire triangle is a culmination of three conditions that must be present to start a fire. To terminate a fire, firefighters try to eliminate one condition of the fire triangle because, without all three, a fire cannot start. These three conditions all working together eventually cause massive wildfires seen in the Amazon, Australia and California.

    The first condition is fuel, classified as “flammable material surrounding a fire, including trees, grasses, bush, even homes,” according to National Geographic. The greater the fuel load, the greater the fire. Anything that can burn can then be used as more fuel to strengthen the fire. There is only one way to take fuel out of the equation, and that is by fighting fire with fire.

    The CTIF or International Association of Fire and Rescue Services explains the method as a backfire or a controlled fire. The idea is to pre-burn the area that the fire is headed, therefore burning all the available fuel. By taking fuel out of the equation, the initial fire cannot spread. But it is not always a quick fix.

    A backfire can help stop the initial fire, but there is also a risk that the backfire can start an entirely new fire. Backfires are a unique battle on their own; they are most effective if the counter-fire is close enough to the fire front that it can be consumed by the original fire. This can only happen if the wind is cooperating, if the wind weakens the fire will stay in one place and just burned the desired area. If not, a whole new fire can spread and create destruction. This explains the importance of the next part of the fire triangle, air.

    For anything to burn there needs to be a significant amount of oxygen. Air provides the oxygen that a fire needs to burn. It also helps flames travel great distances so quickly. National Geographic used California fires as an example. California fires escalate so quickly due to the Santa Ana winds, “hot, dry gusts that turn small blazes, often cause by humans, into neighborhood-charring infernos.” The winds can carry flames far distances, turning a once tame fire uncontrollable. When the air is hot and dry with large gusts of wind, it is the perfect environment to start a fire. There is only one thing missing, the heat source.

    Although fires are classified as natural disasters, most fires are started from heat sources created by human error. According to the Insurance Information Institute, “As many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by people.” People provide a heat source from careless acts of campfires left unattended, thrown out cigarettes, burning buildings and fallen power lines.

    Mistakes from power companies have initiated many devasting fires. Specifically, in California, The Pacific Gas and Electric Company was the cause of California’s Camp Fire in 2018. This fire was the most devastating in California’s history, and the company is eager to not cause another devastation. They intend to stop mistakes by planning blackouts. Therefore, much of California goes without power for an extended amount of time to limit the risk of another fire starting due to errors in power equipment.

    Government officials and Firefighters work to stop any of the three elements that make up the fire triangle. If they are successful, people’s childhood homes are saved, the air is healthier to breathe and animals can stay where they belong. But the failure to stop these elements ends in catastrophe, that is why people across the country are working to find new ways to better control these uncontrollable fires.

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