In the past year, native Californians have adjusted to the fact that wildfires are just a part of California. Although many Californians have gotten used to hearing about a new wildfire on their televisions, many do not understand how wildfires start and how vast the consequences can be.

 

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Image from eSchoolToday

For starters, when many people hear the word “wildfire”, they automatically assume that the causes are natural simply because the word “wild” is a part of the phrase. However, as much as 90% of wildfires are started by humans (4). This can be anywhere from unattended campfires, cigarettes, and even arson. The other 10% are natural causes like lighting or excessive heat from the sun.

 

In order for wildfires to survive for long periods of time, they require what scientist refer to as the “fire triangle.” The fire triangle consists of heat, fuel, and oxygen (2). Especially in states like California, where the fuel is plentiful because of drought and there is lots of wind in the summer, wildfires are bound to start.  The air we breath also contains about 21% oxygen and fire requires about 16% to continue burning, therefore fire burns very easy.

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Image from Smokey Bear

 

Once a fire has ignited, the three major factors that determine its longevity: weather, fuel, and topography (1). The fuel load, or amount of fuel available to burn, will affect how the fire burns. When there is a large fuel load, the fire will burn quickly and large, whereas a smaller fuel load will be a slower, smaller burn. The weather can also affect the fire’s spread. If it is windy, the wind can carry embers and cause the fire to spread. Air moisture can also help to control fires, the wetter the air, the better it is for eliminating fires. Topography is also a huge factor in the lifespan of a fire. Unlike humans, it is easier for fires to travel uphill than downhill.

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Image from Adobe Stock

Once wildfires have run their course and have been subdued by our hardworking firefighters, the wake of destruction they leave behind impacts everyone and everything. Not only are entire ecosystems destroyed and many wild animals are left unprotected, the aftermath of wildfires has huge effects on human health. The largest threat of wildfires to human health is the smoke from the wildfires (3).  Although there are rarely long-term effects of smoke inhalation in healthy individuals, short-term effects include trouble breathing, rapid heartbeat, and symptoms similar to a sinus infection like fatigue and headaches. Individuals with asthma or related diseases should consult their doctors when air quality is not ideal.

Hopefully, with this information, you can be more informed the next time you hear the word “wildfire” come out from your tv or radio.


References/Footnotes

[1] Bonsor, Kevin. “How Wildfires Work.” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 8 Mar. 2018, science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/wildfire4.htm.

[2]“Elements of Fire.” Smokey Bear, smokeybear.com/en/about-wildland-fire/fire-science/elements-of-fire.

[3]Strickland, Ashley. “Do You Need to Worry about Wildfire Smoke?” CNN, Cable News Network, 30 July 2018, www.cnn.com/2016/11/15/health/wildfire-smoke-air-quality-health/index.html.

[4]“Wildfire Causes and Evaluations (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/articles/wildfire-causes-and-evaluations.htm.

 

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