Wildfires, along with their tremendous toll of human lives and injury, property destruction, destruction of forests and eco and biosystems, have been all too common in recent years. It has become apparent to experts who study fires and to the millions of people who live in wildfire areas that these fires are, unfortunately, no longer uncommon. A multifaceted approach to wildfire management encompasses amongst many other goals, prevention of wildfires, training to assure firefighter expertise, and identifying populations and property most at risk in proximity to wildfire zones.
The U.S. Forest Service reports that approximately 85-90% of wildfires are caused by humans. The common causes are familiar: Unattended campfires, burning of garbage and dead vegetation, inadequately extinguished cigarettes, and fireworks. Highway fires due to cars, trucks and trailers can spread and cause wildfires.
All fires, regardless of cause, require the same three elements: Heat, fuel and oxygen. The absence of any one of these elements means a fire cannot burn. As this is a wildfire fire discussion let’s consider where these “ingredients” come from:
Heat: Heat ignites a fire. Heat maintains a fire. Heat allows fire to spread. Natural fire heat sources are typically lightening, or lava. In recent years increased temperatures have contributed to wildfires as well. Human caused igniters that provide heat sources are listed above (campfires cigarettes etc...)
Fuel: Natural causes would be dead leaves and trees. Human causes are noted in the above discussion of causes of wildfires. Fuel, in short is any combustible material.
Oxygen: Air contains 21% oxygen. Fire usually requires 16% oxygen to burn. Burning fuel reacting with oxygen contributes to the embers, smoke and gases associated with fire.
Early warning systems to alert the public to fire are coordinated through various monitoring agencies. The weather warning that is perhaps most familiar, is that from the National Weather Service. Fire warnings from the National Weather service are categorized as:
Fire Weather Watch: This is an alert that predicts upcoming fire danger is possible due to weather conditions, but not imminent or currently occurring. This is the lowest probability warning.
Red Flag Warning: This alert says take action: If the warning is issued, use of open flames is considered dangerous and requires extreme caution. This warning is issued together with land management agencies when fire danger is ongoing. Red Flag warnings indicate high or extreme probability.
Extreme Fire Behavior: This alert warns of a wildfire that has high probability of becoming out of control. Characteristics of fires that predict extreme risk are:
- Fire is fast moving at fast speed
- Fire is crowning and /or spotting. Crowning means that the fire is moving though the tops of trees or shrubs with a pattern independent of the surface fire.
- Presence of fire whirls: A fire whirl is also known as a fire devil. It is a whirlwind composed of flame or ash.
- Strong Convection Column: This is a rising column of fire debris, ash, smoke.
Firewise USA is a program with similar goals as Outthink Wildfires with a different focus. Firewise USA focuses on local community solutions to reduce damage to people and property for communities threatened by wildfire. Residents can also focus on how to live with the threat of wildfires. The program initiated in 2002 with 12 pilot programs and has expanded to approximately 1000 communities in over 40 states with an 80% retention rate. The Firewise Program is geared to solutions that are enacted before a wildfire starts. The NPFA recommendations for protecting home and property that are included in Firewise program are noted at the end of this article.
You may be wondering if Firewise is offered in Green Valley?
Currently three Green Valley HOAs are working with the US Forest Service National Fire Protection Association to implement Firewise for their homeowner associations. Risk assessment by the Forestry Service is comprehensive. Following risk assessment evaluation, the Forestry Service will issue a report and suggestions for implementation of preventative measures. The community and individual homeowners bear the responsibility for implementing the recommendations. CERT (Greater Green Valley Community Emergency Response Team) has offered the Firewise program to Green Valley. To learn more about Firewise, and/or to enroll in the program, visit the CERT web site. The Firewise USA is also accessed at The NFPA website. States with Firewise programs can be found with an Internet Search. The National Forest Service National Fire Protection also has Firewise information.
Smokey the Bear was created in 1944 as an ad campaign for the US Forest Service. Smokey the Bear’s message was aimed to educate people of all ages, including school children, about the dangers of unplanned fires caused by humans. Smokey reminded us of this message for more than 50 years. In 2001 the word forest fires was changed to wildfires. In the decades since Smokey first told us to treat the wildlands with respect in order to prevent fires, a lot has changed. Suburbia has expanded, so that homes and business live on the edge of wildlands. Our efforts of prevention have therefore, expanded as well. We now share responsibilities for prevention of fire not only when we are physically in the wildlands, but for prevention of loss of life, injury and property damage when we live in areas that encroach on wildlands.
Smokey the Bear told us for decades” Only YOU can prevent forest fires”. This slogan was ultimately changed to “Only WE can prevent Forest Fires”, an appropriate message that remains relevant today.