When wildfires happen, one of the first things that people do is look for what caused them in the first place. Discovering what causes wildfires is an essential part of the firefighting process that often involves law enforcement and environmental agencies. These investigations aren’t just to lambast or punish those who started the fire, they are meant to ensure that whatever mistakes led to the fire in the first place aren’t repeated in the future.
What causes wildfires?
The EPA technically classifies wildfires as natural disasters, but the majority of wildfires are anything by naturally-occurring. According to the National Park Service, human-caused wildfires account for around 80 to 90 percent of all reported wildfires. Most of these fires start because of careless campers or expectant parents (more on that below), but other causes can include things like electrical power lines, equipment or vehicle failures, cigarettes, and even arson.
How do humans cause wildfires?
According to the Frontline Wildfire Defense System, most wildfires start because campers have left their campfires unattended. Cooking around a campfire might be nice, but even one erratic spark on a dry and windy day can lead to widespread destruction. These fires can spread well beyond the campground and have been known to envelop nearby residential areas as well.
Those residential areas can also contain the spark that lights the wildfire. Burning leaves in your backyard, roasting marshmallows over a fire pit, and even lighting up one of those explosive gender reveals can result in wildfires — and widespread destruction.
It’s also important to note that burning vegetation is actually illegal in many parts of the U.S., so it’s not something you should be doing anyway. Check with your local municipality before you burn anything in your backyard, especially in dry weather or if you live near a heavily forested area.
Electrical power lines are one of the top-ranking causes of Californian wildfires, according to the Frontline Wildfire Defense System. 10 percent of all wildfires are the result of fallen power lines. For California, that’s approximately 400 fires a year. Fallen power lines have caused more than 1,500 California wildfires over the past six years.
These wildfires have resulted in dozens of deaths, billions of dollars worth of property damage, and countless acres of forests being burned down. Car fires, engine sparks, equipment malfunctions, and cigarette butts are all further causes of these giant fires. On the East Coast of the U.S., studies have shown that wildfire arson is the leading cause of forest fires.
Can wildfires start on their own?
The National Parks Service admits that while 85 percent of all wildfires are caused by humans, there are other natural causes. Lightning, specifically hot lighting, is the main natural cause of random forest fires. Lightning doesn’t always cause wildfires, though — conditions still have to be ideal for the spark to ignite and the fire to spread.
Those conditions include a certain degree of heat, enough flammable fuel for the fire to feed upon, the right amount of oxygen, and the right amount of wind. California’s famed Santa Ana winds provide ideal conditions for forest fires on a yearly basis. Other natural causes include volcanoes, fallen meteors, and coal seams.
Does climate change cause wildfires?
While climate change has not been officially recognized as a direct cause of forest fires, the weather patterns it impacts certainly create more optimal conditions for them to thrive. You cannot discuss wildfires these days without mentioning climate change, because the presence of a longer, hotter, dryer wildfire season certainly makes it more likely for one errant spark to catch an entire forest on fire.