Wildfires 101: How they start, why they are tough to stop

(AP Photo/Ty O'Neil) (Ty O'Neil, Associated Press)

The images were tragic from Hawaii this week with people jumping into the ocean to escape wildfires that were burning on the island of Maui.

The wildfires in Hawaii come after a summer of record wildfires in Canada, which has caused air quality issues around the world.

Recommended Videos

So, why are wildfires so rampant this summer and been such a problem for the world? Here’s a basic synopsis of wildfires, sort of like “Wildfires: 101,” if you will.

How do wildfires start?

A majority of wildfires — 85% to be exact — are started by humans, according to the National Park Service.

Whether it’s campfires that are unattended, debris that’s burned, equipment malfunctions, discarded cigarettes and acts of arson.

But weather is also a major cause, and that is what more started the blazes in Canada and Hawaii.

Wildfires all across Canada and in Hawaii have been caused by abnormally warm and dry conditions, and high winds.

How are wildfires attempted to be put out?

There are three methods to trying to put out wildfires, according to BC Wildfire Service in Canada.

  • Reduce heat. This is done primarily by water and initiating a water delivery system, since water cools the temperature of fuels and creates humidity that reduces the intensity of fire. This process can involve hoses or helicopter buckets.
  • Reduce fuel. This is a common method that aims to stop the fire’s forward progress and cause the fire to burn itself out within a controlled area. Fuel in this case is defined as any combustible material in a forest, such as needles, twigs, branches, logs, grasses or roots. Firefighters essentially dig up these materials and create clear dirt paths to help stop the spread of fires. This YouTube video explains the process more in detail.
  • Reduce oxygen. A big component of this strategy is to essentially smother a fire and cause it to evaporate that way. Fire retardants and foam are the most commonly used elements in this process, but water can also be used even though it evaporates quicker than fire retardants or foam. Retardants contain salts and fertilizer that can affect the burning process of forest fuels such as needles, twigs, branches and roots.

Any of the above firefighting methods can become extremely difficult when blazes stretch for a wide area or are in more obscure locations where they are hard to find and get to.

What are the environmental and health effects of wildfires?

In addition to destroying buildings and homes, wildfires can have negatively lasting health impacts on humans and animals.

Smoke from wildfires releases toxic pollutants that can cause lung and heart damage, according to the World Health Organization.

Wildfires also destroy habitats for animals who live in the forest and releases large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

When a large quantity of forestry is burned to the ground, that takes away trees that help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, release oxygen, prevent flooding, and are key ingredients for medicines and other products such as paper.

About the Author

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.

Recommended Videos