Wildfires: How They Start - Be Prepared - Emergency Essentials
How do wildfires start? Recent California wildfires are filling the news, showing the devastation to families in the area. Knowing how to prepare for a wildfire begins with understanding how wildfires start. Wildfire preparation is important for people in every part of the country, not just in the newsworthy places like California or near the Oregon wildfires. The western part of the country may be more susceptible to wildfire activity due to weather patterns and the frequency of droughts, but the risk remains for other areas in the United States. In California, the Santa Ana winds have been known to carry a spark for miles. Wildfires can be started in several ways and as part of your emergency preparedness plans, knowing the wildfire causes is crucial to being ready for the unexpected.

The Statistics of Wildfires

How Wildfires Start Wildfires need three things to burn and spread:
  • Fuel (dried grass, branches, and brush)
  • Oxygen
  • Heat source
According to National Geographic, more than 100,000 wildfires consume up to 5 million acres of land every year across the United States. When an area has a lot of fuel, a spark from a heat source can trigger an intense fire that spreads quickly. High winds are responsible for transporting burning embers, which start fires in nearby areas. Here are 5 common ways wildfires are started and what you can do to prepare:

Lightning Strikes

Nature can be responsible for the start of wildfires. When conditions in a forested area are right, a single lightning strike can ignite a wildfire. Lightning during a dry storm is dangerous, as there is no rain to put out the sparks. If lightning strikes in multiple dried out areas, several fires can quickly spread to the rest of the brush and trees. According to the National Park Service, lightning is responsible for about 10% of all wildfires. The remaining percentage is due to human action, either intentional or accidental. What you can do:
  • To prevent danger to your home and property, it is important to keep dead brush cleared away from structures at all times. Regular landscaping can go a long way toward protecting your surroundings from fire dangers.
  • Remove all flammable debris and garbage from around your property, which can catch fire during a lightning storm. Fuels should be stored in a safe place, away from your home.
  • During a dry period, regularly water your lawn and the landscaping around your house. In the event a fire ignites in the nearby trees and brush, the damp conditions around your home can help repel the flames.


Campfires are responsible for the start of many wildfires, especially in public campgrounds and private backyards. People leave a burning fire unattended, which can grow out of control quickly. If wind is a factor, those fires can spread rapidly, consuming acres of dry trees and tinder before help can arrive. What you can do:
  • Before starting a campfire, ensure campfires in the area are permitted. Any posted No Burning notices should be obeyed. You should also confirm there have been no recent local or regional burn bans enacted.
  • Make sure the surrounding area is clear of fuel sources, such as dried timber and dead leaves. Keep extra firewood several feet away from the flames.
  • Surround the campfire area with a fire-safe border, such as a circle of rocks or a fire ring. This prevents flames from traveling along the ground and outside of the designated area.
  • Never leave the fire unattended. Have a responsible person standing by the fire for as long as it burns. Have a bucket of water nearby as a safety precaution.
  • Before leaving the campfire area, make sure the flames are completely out. You can pour water or toss handfuls of dirt over the flames until the flames die out. Make sure all remaining embers are also doused before moving away from the fire.

Trash Burning

Similar to campfires, burning trash can also start a wildfire. Many people prefer to burn brush and trash rather than haul it off to the landfill. These controlled fires are effective at getting rid of large piles of refuse, but can quickly grow out of control. What you can do:
  • Never start a trash fire during a burn ban or in any area posted with No Burning signs. Never start a fire in windy conditions. Use a burn barrel with a metal grill on top to control flying embers.
  • Always stay with trash fire while it burns and have a working water hose or buckets of water on hand in the event the fire grows too large.
  • Make sure the fire is completely out before leaving the area, using dirt or water to douse smoldering embers.


A tossed cigarette can spark a wildfire quickly in dry conditions. Burning cigarettes can be thrown into leaf piles, trash, and other flammable debris. As smokers live all over the country, a cigarette-triggered wildfire can occur anywhere. A cigarette may initially trigger a fire but in dry conditions, nature can transform those flames into a raging wildfire. What you can do:
  • Smokers have a responsibility to ensure cigarettes are properly extinguished and disposed of in an ashtray. Littering cigarette butts outdoors isn’t only a fire hazard, it’s also an environmental nuisance.
  • Carry a portable ashtray or plastic bag full of sand when outdoors. Make sure cigarettes are fully put out before disposing of them. Refrain from littering cigarettes, especially from your car window.


Arson is defined as deliberately setting fire to a property. A large majority of wildfires are started intentionally through arson. Arson crimes are very serious, and authorities will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. Arson fires have resulted in dangerous, raging wildfires in many parts of the country, especially recent western wildfires. The deadly Gatlinburg, Tennessee, wildfires were started by two teenagers, who tossed lit matches on the ground during a hike. While maybe not intentional, their poor judgement led to the deadly fires affecting Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge, which lasted for five days. The fires killed 14 people and wounded hundreds more. What you can do:
  • While you may not be able to prevent an arsonist from starting a fire, any suspicious activity in wooded areas should be reported to local authorities immediately.
As human error, or purposeful malice, is the leading cause of wildfires, it is important to take responsibility for your own actions when burning trash, smoking cigarettes, or lighting a campfire. It is also your responsibility to prepare your household for wildfire emergencies.

More Wildfire Preparation Tips

IMAGE_3 before wildfires start Wildfire preparedness goes beyond trimming your trees and keeping up with your landscaping. It is important to think about the big picture of wildfire danger. Other wildfire preparedness tips include:

Prepare an Emergency Supply Kit

Even if your home is not directly affected by a wildfire, your local area may become disabled during this type of emergency. Keep a well-stocked supply of nonperishable foods and MREs on hand in case grocery stores are closed or local roads become impassable. Have plenty of clean, bottled drinking water to last each household member for a few days. You should also have a supply of first aid items, including burn creams, clean gauze, and pain relievers in the event you or your family members are injured during fires. Keep a list of emergency phone numbers easily accessible in addition to 911 to report wildfire sightings. Make sure your cell phone is charged in case of power loss. Have flashlights and extra batteries ready for use. As part of your wildfire emergency preparedness kit, you also should have a battery-operated weather radio which can be used for gathering information from local authorities about weather and wildfire conditions.

Prepare for Wildfire Evacuations

In the event you need to leave your home due to wildfire dangers, it is important for each member of the household to have a sturdy backpack filled with the essentials including:
  • Prescription medications and vital medical equipment
  • Bottled water and emergency food rations
  • Copies of important documents (birth certificate, social security card)
  • Extra clothing and blankets
  • Toiletries
  • Cash and credit cards
  • Cell phone and chargers
  • Flashlights
If a fire is approaching your property, make sure your vehicles are filled with gas and ready to transport you and your family to a safe zone. Practice an actual evacuation with your household members to ensure everyone knows what to do and where to go. During an emergency evacuation, contact loved ones outside of the fire zone and let them know where you will be going to ensure everyone is safe.

Prepare Your Property

If a fire is nearby but it’s still safe to go outside, have everyone pitch in to stow away important items for protection. It is also important to reduce as many fuel resources around the structures of your property as possible. Put flowerpots and other décor inside to prevent them from catching fire. Any vehicles remaining at the home after an evacuation should be stored inside a garage if possible. Hose down your property frequently to reduce the risk of the fire spreading to nearby dry grasses and trees. You should also get in touch with your insurance company to ensure you have proper coverage for wildfire damage. Discuss your deductible and other information with your insurance agent so you’ll be prepared to handle any insurance claims upon your return home.

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