As a child, the image of Smokey the Bear teaching you about fire prevention is one that lasts a lifetime, as the lovable character made a great impact in spreading the word on fire safety. In this day and age, the rules and regulations pertaining to forest fires have changed. Today, in some parts of the United States, the start of small-scale forest fires are now actually considered a good thing within certain circles, who use the practice as a means of preventing large-scale forest fires. Nonetheless, the damaging effects that come from human-generated forest fires are still a grave problem and with proper prevention techniques, these types of unintentional fires can be prevented.
What is a Forest Fire?
The forest fire is often referred to as a wildfire because of the untamed and devastating manner in which the element can rip and tear through vegetation; completely destroy property; take the lives of humans and animals; and ruin agricultural production. Today, natural forces (especially lightning) and the carelessness of humans are responsible for most forest fires. Additional forest fire culprits include deliberate arson and volcano eruptions. The risk of wild fires in the forest also increases when heat waves, droughts, and specific changes in climate take place .
Every year, human actions cause more forest fires than lightning, yet the silver streak is to blame for more acreage destruction. Forest fire prevention is important because the United States suffers a multitude of human-caused blazes on a yearly basis. For instance, in 2006, humans were responsible for a considerable amount of fires in Alaska (254); the Northwest (2,666); Northern California (3,676); Southern California (3,166); the Northern Rockies (2,303); the Southwest (2,511); Western Great Basin (331); the East (14,227); the South (47,175) and the Rocky Mountains (2,968) for a total of 80,220 .
Usually, the typical forest possesses their own fire season, which may start as early as April, peaking in May and June with lingering fires developing during dryer summer months. Often, the worst of the fires passes by the time September arrives. To battle a forest fire, highly trained firefighters are needed to combat not only the fierceness of a rolling fire, but also any contributing natural elements, such as high winds, which may generate a much worse inferno.
Firefighters may fight blazes on the ground, using hand tools, chainsaws, and water pumps to control forest fires. Over the years, battling flames with the use of helicopters; rappelling and parachuting crews; and water tankers have become more common . Today, the latest in satellite monitoring systems have also made predicting fire patterns and devising a game plan much easier.
The Different Phases of Forest Fires
During the development of a forest fire, one of three phases may surface:
a) “Crawling” Fire:
The fire spreads throughout lower level vegetation, including bushes.
b) “Crown” Fire:
When a fire “crowns,” the flames have spread to the top branches of trees and begin to travel at a rapid pace. Soon, the fire blankets the top of the forest. Whatever is caught underneath a crown fire is in serious danger, as the spreading of the fire may prove too much for an individual to outrun. Windy conditions also make this type of fire especially hard to battle.
c) “Jumping” or “Spotting” Fire:
The power of the wind may carry burning branches and leaves over roads, rivers, and other objects, which creates distant fires.
d) Smoldering Fire:
Another type of forest fire centers on the slow combustion of surface fuels that do not create a flame, but instead spread slowly at a steady pace throughout the forest. Some smoldering fires stay around for days or weeks, and then disappear. Unfortunately, surrounding roots, seeds, and plant stems on the ground are greatly affected. This type of fire also produces a large amount of emissions, which threatens the atmosphere.
The Positive and Negative Effects of Forest Fires
According to researchers, not all forest fires are entirely bad and some create a collection of ecological benefits. Some fires are a natural occurrence throughout grasslands and forest ecosystems, as they aim to lessen the build-up of dead and decaying leaves, logs and needles that amass on the forest floor. Fires also open up the forest to allow sunlight in for the cultivation of new growth, seeds, and roots.
Over time, many plants and animals have adapted to the presence of forest fires, such as some pines, which are known to develop a resin coating on their cones that protects seeds from fire . It is actually the heat of the fire that stimulates the cones to burst open and spread seeds. Woodpeckers and other creatures also dine on the bark beetles and other insects that find a home in newly burned trees.
On the other hand, careless human fires remain an intensely destructive force that places natural resources, human and animal lives, plants, and property in danger. Forest fires cause significant environmental, economic, and social damages. The loss of timber, wildlife habitats, and human dwellings can prove quite devastating to overcome. Over the years, there is no denying the great amount of deaths, property damage and destruction, and loss of precious acreage associated with forest fires.
In 1881, Michigan lost more than 250 lives to the Thumb Fire, which destroyed 1,000,000 acres of land. The Great Fire of 1889 in California is the largest fire recorded in state history, destroying 800,000 acres. California was hit once again in 1970, as the Laguna Fire took away 175,425 acres; killed eight people; and demolished 382 homes. The Hinckley Fire of 1894 captured 160,000 acres and killed 418 people. The fire also destroyed 12 towns in its path. Between 400 and 500 people lost their lives in the Cloquet Fire (1918), which spanned the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Forest fires also have the capacity to cause great financial damage, as Florida suffered 2,200 separate fires during the drought season, which was responsible for the burning down of 150 homes, and caused $390 million in lost timber and $133 million in fire suppression costs . New Mexico also suffered considerable fire damage costs, as the state lost 420 homes in Los Alamos to the Cerro Grande Fire, including 10 buildings at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which racked up $1 billion in damages. To date, this is considered the worst fire in the state’s recorded history.
Contributing Factors of Forest Fires
In order to prevent forest fires, it is wise to investigate some of the factors that contribute to their existence and development. Some of the most common elements regarding this type of fire include:
Certain parts of the world are more susceptible to forest fires than others, such as the vegetation-rich regions of Australia; various parts of the Western Cape of South Africa; and heavily forested areas in the United States and Canada. Wildfires also take place throughout locations where shrublands and grasslands are prominent.
b) Climate and Time of Year:
Forest fires are common in places where climates are moist enough to permit the healthy growth of trees, but showcase lengthy periods of dryness and heat. Forest fires usually erupt in the summertime and fall, as well as during moments of drought, when fallen branches and leaves become dry enough to create a highly flammable environment.
c) Wind Conditions:
When paired with other elements, such as drought, a strong wind encourages the development of a forest fire. In southern California, the Santa Ana winds cause forest fires to move at incredible speeds, some reaching up to 40 mph within a single day. Sometimes, up to 1,000 acres of land is destroyed per hour.
Each year, the accidental setting of a forest fire is known to occur due to the use of fireworks, which are restricted in many states. While the 4th of July brings many tempted individuals to whip out the visual festivities, the worst of the bunch are considered to move, jump, explode, or shoot out balls of fire. This includes fireworks such as roman candles, jumping jacks, firecrackers, and bottle rockets.
How to Prevent Forest Fire
Human-initiated fires are to blame for a high amount of property damage; loss of wildlife habitat and the lives of humans and animals. Some forest fires are the result of carelessness or improper habits when engaging in outdoor activities. Familiarizing yourself with appropriate forest fire preventive measures not only helps you become a more aware individual when it comes to protecting the safety and natural resources in your region, but also helps you better spread the word:
a) Establish Fire Lookouts:
In the United States, Canada, and other countries across the globe, the use of fire lookouts is still very much a part of forest fire prevention. It is through this method that early detection of forest fires takes place. A fire lookout is a system of setting up personnel, who will man the top of a building or tower in order to report any smoke in the area, which may indicate a wildfire. Usually, fire lookouts are positioned on top of a mountain, where the high elevation provides a good enough view to survey the surrounding terrain . Once smoke or forest fire activity is spotted, various reports are sent out.
b) Follow Safe Debris Burning Rules:
When debris burning is allowed, following safe practices will make sure you do not set off a fire you are unable to control. A few tips to consider include: burning one pile at a time; burning only natural vegetation or untreated wood products; burning piles of debris that are at least 50 feet from any structures and 500 feet from any forest slash; removing flammable products from the scene; avoiding the burning of debris when wind conditions are high; and keeping a connected water hose by your side (or at least five gallons of water and a nearby shovel) . You should also never leave a fire unattended.
c) Practice Firework Safety:
Fireworks are a common human blunder that causes a high number of forest fires. When using legal fireworks, you should set them off in an area that is set aside from buildings, vehicles, and shrubbery . Also, do not experiment with homemade fireworks and never try to relight a dud. To be on the safe side, it wouldnâ€™t hurt to have a bucket of water handy.
d) Practice Proper Ash Disposal:
Wildfires have been known to break out because of the improper disposal of ash that comes from wood stoves, barbeque grills, fireplaces, and outdoor wood boilers. Some piles of ashes have the capacity to hold enough heat to start a fire that will furiously burn for several days. These fires also begin when heated ashes are tossed in dumpsters and trash cans. Before disposing ashes, you should place them in a metal container (never in a container made from paper, plastic, or cardboard). The next step is to wet the ashes, and stir them until they are cold to the touch.
e) Create a Safe Campfire:
When establishing a safe campfire, you should select a level spot that is open and situated away from trees, dense dry grass, and branches that hang over. The object of creating a safe campfire is to promote an environment where the fire cannot spread to other areas of the camp. Clearing a ten-foot circle of bare soil around the campfire is suggested. Keeping a bucket of water and shovel close to the campfire is highly suggested. It is also important not to leave a campfire unattended at any time.
f) Detection Services:
Depending on the size of a forest fire-prone region, a variety of detection services are available to prevent the spread of forest fires. Smaller areas benefit from local sensors that detect fires within 150 square feet. Medium-sized areas may use infrared or smoke scanners to detect fires within three acres of land. NASA also assists the detection of forest fires within 30 acres with aero-satellite technology.
g) Equipment Safety:
A large portion of fires in some areas (such as Wisconsin) is caused by equipment and machinery. Malfunctioning parts, constant sparking, electrical weaknesses, and mechanical breakdowns are just some of the factors that aids in equipment-related fires. This is why it is important to perform routine maintenance checks on all machinery and equipment.
h) Monitor Electric Fencing:
Some people are proud owners of an electric fence, which is often used to maintain livestock on farms or keep intruders out. Sometimes, a malfunction in the construction of this type of fence can cause a fire, which possesses the capability to destroy surrounding vegetation and acres of forest. Prevention measures include making sure your fencer is UL approved; the fence wire is away from fire hazards; and the fencer is turner off when not in use.
i) Contact Your Local Landfill:
When you feel compelled to burn your own debris, you should consider no-burn options. Some cities offer designated days where various landfills allow the disposal of yard debris at little or no cost.
j) Know Local Regulations:
Before you engage in any burning of debris, you should check local regulations, which may require permits. You may even learn that your city has “burn ban” restrictions. This is good information to know, so you may help enforce these policies within your own neighborhood to help prevent forest fires.
k) Flame-Resistant Materials:
People who build their homes out of flame-resistant materials help to prevent the spread of a forest fire. Additional home prevention measures include reducing the amount of fuel stored at the home or on your property. When living close to a forest or other wooded area, it is also beneficial to purchase your own firefighting equipment so you may put out small fires that you may encounter about your home.
l) School Programs & Proper Education:
Forest fire prevention is most effective when individuals are taught at a young age how to prevent fires. School programs often teach children not to play with matches and lighters, as well as educate them regarding the possible destruction and consequences that one little match can create. Some school programs are effective because they use fire prevention-related rulers, pencils, pens, posters, brochures, patches, balloons, coloring books, and calendars to grab the attention of children.