SEPT 5 & 6 2024

LA Convention Center

The Causes of Wildfires: Exploring Prevention, Detection, and Mitigation in Vulnerable Landscapes

The threat of wildfires looms larger than ever in the USA, with numbers steadily rising since the 1980s, impacting ecosystems and communities with devastating consequences. These infernos, fueled by dry vegetation and high winds, exacerbated by climate change, pose significant challenges to environmental sustainability and human safety. Recent events, such as the catastrophic wildfires in California and Australia, vividly illustrate the urgency of addressing this global issue.

But what are the causes of Wildfires?

Understanding forest fires and proper wildfire prevention begins by grasping their core causes – a variety of environmental and manmade factors. We’ve put together this blog to expand on how wildfires start, explore recent catastrophic events, and digging deeper into some vital management strategies. 

How Do Wildfires Start?

Every wildfire originates from a convergence of three critical elements: dry fuel like leaves and grass, oxygen in the air, and sufficient heat to ignite and sustain combustion. These fires can arise naturally or through human activities – it’s important to understand the difference of these causes.

Natural Causes of Wildfires

Dry areas with winds and plenty of natural fuel to burn are vulnerable to natural wildfires, generally triggered by lightning. 

  • Lightning: Lightning reaches very high temperatures, meaning it can easily start fires if it strikes a vulnerable area. All it takes is a single bolt hitting the ground or some vegetation in a dry, windy area to trigger a devastating blaze. 

Human Causes of Wildfires

The vast majority of wildfires are caused by human activity in one form or another, with typical triggers including:

  • Debris Burning
  • Irresponsible Campfires
  • Discarded Cigarettes
  • Fireworks
  • Deliberate Acts of Arson
  • Technological Faults & Accidents

Whether these triggers are accidental or intentional, they’re all preventable with a better sense of responsibility and care. Periods like Wildfire Awareness Month underscore the need for better education across the board, with fire training programs a necessity in at-risk areas. 

It’s also vital to note that the number of both natural and manmade wildfires is rising primarily as a result of global warming. 

Global Warming and Wildfires

The climate crisis plays into the number of wildfires significantly, with rising temperatures fuelling the phenomenon from every angle. 

For one, rising temperatures generally create environments far more conducive to wildfires and increased impacts. With hotter summers and lower precipitation winters, vegetation gets hotter and drier, meaning any fire that starts is far more likely to spin out into a devastating blaze. 

Additionally, studies indicate that rising temperatures also feed into lightning activity. Warmer, longer summers mean hotter surfaces and increased carbon emissions, all of which increase the frequency and intensity of lightning storms. 

This denotes that whether “natural” or entirely human-caused, the wildfire problem in America can largely be attributed to a lack of environmental care and responsibility. 

Case Study: The 2023 Maui Wildfires

The Maui wildfires of 2023 rank in the top 10 deadliest wildfires since 1871, the deadliest in over a century, and the worst disaster in Hawaiian history. Lahaina, a major tourist spot and former royal capital, was decimated alongside Kihei and the Upcountry area, resulting in almost $6 billion in damages. Over 5,400 people remain displaced as of mid-January 2024, with 100 victims sadly passing away.

The Hawaii wildfire serves as a devastating reminder of just how devastating these blazes can be. The response to the fires on Maui is also a poignant showcase of community resilience, even if the events could have been mitigated. 

Despite the devastation, communities rallied in firefighting efforts and courageous search and rescue operations. Ongoing rebuilding initiatives underscored the need for enhanced resilience and the commitment to recovery, with some NGOs contributing significantly.

What Caused the Fires on Maui?

The prevailing theory so far is that the Hawaii wildfire was ignited by downed power lines, with the blazes then exacerbated by the winds of Hurricane Dora, spreading the fire to drought-ridden grasslands. The decimation of Lahaina from the fires can be attributed to a lack of resilient infrastructure, with buildings and communities vulnerable to fires once they strike. 

Wildfire Prevention Strategies

It’s one thing to understand the causes of wildfires, but once you know where the problem starts, it’s even more important to have some wildfire mitigation techniques in place. These come in the form of both individual methods and more community-minded strategies. 

Personal Strategies

If you’re in the forest, especially in an at-risk area, some basic wildfire prevention techniques include: 

  • Smoking with Caution
  • Practicing Safe Fires
  • Using Fireworks Safely
  • Parking Mindfully (undercarriages can set grass alight) 

Community Prevention Techniques

Effective wildfire prevention demands proactive measures and community involvement, including practices such as:

  • Public Education Campaigns: Educating the public through the distribution of educational publications, early schooling, and community notices on responsible outdoor practices reduces accidental ignitions.
  • Regulatory Measures: Implementing and enforcing strict fire safety regulations, such as mandatory campfire certifications, helps mitigate risks. Deterrents like fines or criminal charges are also effective in this area. 
  • Community Engagement: Empowering communities through fire training programs enhances preparedness, particularly in regions prone to wildfires.

By adopting these strategies, local governments can empower communities to significantly reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires, safeguarding lives, property, and natural ecosystems.

Wildfire Detection and Early Warning Systems

While community engagement and education are essential facets of wildfire prevention, it’s also important for organizations and governments to sufficiently invest in wildfire detection technology. Wildfire management is most effective when applied as early as possible. 

Suitable detection technologies and systems include: 

  • Wildfire Drones and Targeted Satellite Imagery: Custom-made drones and weather satellites monitor areas in real time, collecting and feeding back crucial data on fire outbreaks and progressions. Some are equipped with thermal sensors, able to pinpoint hotspots and speed up response times. 
  • Automated Detection Systems: Utilizing heat and smoke sensors in high-risk zones improves surveillance. These systems swiftly detect fire activity, triggering immediate alerts and responses to mitigate fires spreading too far or wide.
  • Community Reporting: Engaging local communities as human sensors improves early warning systems with first-hand reports, able to communicate urgency. Rapid reporting of smoke or suspicious activities enables swift responses, vital in preventing wildfires from spreading uncontrollably.

These technological tools and human strategies should be employed to detect wildfires as quickly as possible – the sooner a burn is noticed the quicker it can be managed. 

Wildfire Mitigation and Forest Management

Beyond detecting wildfires and educating communities, proper mitigation and ecosystem protection requires proactive forest management. Physically influencing the environment of at-risk areas is essential to minimizing the impact of fires when they do strike. 

Physical wildfire mitigation strategies include:

  • Controlled Burns: Regular controlled burns in line with suitable weather conditions, can reduce the buildup of vegetation that might build up as hazardous fuel, with replanting initiatives helping to rejuvenate ecosystems. 
  • Strategic Forest Management: Practices, such as thinning dense vegetation, controlling livestock grazing, incorporating fireproof natural materials, and implementing fuel breaks (like bodies of water) can all reduce wildfire impacts.  
  • Fire Breaks: Establishing fire breaks—cleared areas designed to impede the spread of a blaze—around communities and critical infrastructure is crucial. These buffer zones help protect populated areas from advancing flames.

With these direct, active measures, fire-prone areas can be more resilient when things ignite. 

Wildfire Evacuation and Emergency Preparedness

Even with plenty of community engagement, education, and mitigation strategies in place, preparing to escape from wildfire emergencies is critical for all at-risk communities. 

Wildfire evacuation systems require: 

  • Community Evacuation Plans: Local authorities need to develop suitable evacuation plans for community members – complete with designated routes and access to shelters and checkpoints to relocate residents out of harm’s way. 
  • Effective Communication Strategies: Timely communication saves lives in times of crisis. Implementing community-wide alert systems, such as sirens and mobile alerts, ensures residents receive immediate notifications to evacuate or take shelter.
  • Importance of Personal Preparedness: Individuals must take responsibility for their own safety in wildfires Preparing emergency essentials kits, knowing routes, and practicing drills are all vital for personal and family safety.

No matter how well-prepared a community is to handle a fire head-on, it needs to be well aware of how to get out of a dangerous situation when things heat up. 

The Cutting Edge of Wildfire Prevention

Wildfire prevention, early detection, and effective management are pivotal to sufficiently protecting vulnerable landscapes and communities. Proactive measures, such as public education, technological adoptions, and strategic mitigation efforts can reduce the devastating impact of wildfires.

If you’re interested in looking beyond the causes of wildfires and some basic strategies, you should make sure to attend this year’s Disasters Expo USA - California Edition. This event will be a convergence of thousands of disaster response professionals, hundreds of relevant business showcases, and an impressive lineup of guest speakers. 

The show will also feature a dedicated Tech on Fire Trail, showcasing the very best in wildfire management, fighting, and prevention technology. 

Register today to guarantee your spot at this monumental event.