What Causes Wildfires, and What Can You Do to Help Right Now?

With the impacts of climate change worsening and wildfires becoming more devastating, it’s more important than ever to understand what causes wildfires and how to advocate for protection.

Published on: July 5, 2021

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If you live in an area prone to wildfires, you know the incredible fear and heartache they bring. Lives are lost, homes are destroyed, and communities are forced to rebuild for years to come.

In the last year alone, wildfires destroyed 4 million acres in California, doubling the previous record of only 2 million acres seared in a single fire season.

Many parts of the world, including locations of our sustainable sanctuaries, are at increased risk. As we continue to serve as a platform for change, we’re not only committed to more sustainable development and operations, we’re dedicated to spreading awareness and hope.
 

What causes wildfires, and how do they spread?

There are three elements necessary for a fire to start: fuel (wood, brush, etc.), oxygen, and ignition. Nearly 85% of all wildfires in the US are ignited by humans — through poorly maintained campfires, cigarette butts, planned arson, and more.

Once ignited, there are several factors that influence the fire’s behavior, which leads us to our next question: how do wildfires spread?

  • Fuel: The type of fuel that’s helping the wildfire grow plays a unique role. For example, tree needles, brush, dead leaves, and dry grass are all very fast-burning fuels, whereas large stumps and branches are more slow-burning fuels. In drought years, this underbrush is especially dry and literally adds more fuel to the fire. That’s why those fires tend to be worse.
  • Topography: The “lay of the land” plays an important role in the spread, too. Specific categories include the slope of the ground (fires tend to move fast uphill), the direction the land faces (e.g. towards the sun), and terrain (controlling wind flow).
  • Weather: This is one of the most important factors to consider regarding how a wildfire will spread. Temperature, humidity, and wind are the most influential components. High temperatures, strong winds, and low humidity all make it easier for a fire to spread.

On the topic of weather, it’s important to note the relationship between climate change and wildfires. Climate change plays a key role in increasing the likelihood of a wildfire starting and spreading. This is especially true in the Western US. 

Wildfires thrive in low-humidity environments, and climate change has been known to dry out the fuel that accelerates the fires. As a result:

The number of large fires in the Western US between 1984-2015 has already doubled in recent years, and 75% of California’s most destructive wildfires in history have happened since 2015.

For a large portion of the Western US, projections show that a global annual temperature increase of 1°C may increase the burn area of wildfires by as much as 600%. And in the Southeastern US, where lightning-ignited wildfires are common, the length of fire seasons is predicted to increase by 30% by 2060.

What are the impacts of wildfires?

It’s important to note here that no article can truly capture the devastation, fear, and lasting impacts of wildfires. However, here are a few (less-obvious) ways that wildfires can affect a community.

Environmental
In addition to wiping out the forests, wildfires release several greenhouse gasses and harmful aerosols. These include carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon. 

With that being said, wildfires are actually a natural part of many ecosystems. Plants will typically regrow to remove carbon from the affected areas — ideally neutralizing the fire’s effects. However, the larger, more frequent fires we’ve been seeing tend to release greenhouse gasses that may not be counteracted if plants can’t mature before the next fire occurs.

Social + Public Health
In 2019 alone, wildfires resulted in 3,704 deaths and 16,600 injuries. Beyond injuries and fatalities, wildfire smoke also causes lingering air quality issues. The smoke and ash bring air pollutants and particulate matter into nearby communities. This can greatly impact those closest to the wildfire, like residents, firefighters, and emergency response teams. Plus, it puts those with respiratory and heart conditions at an increased risk.

This is because smoke and ashes can cause lingering conditions, such as:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs
  • Coughing, wheezing, and decreased lung function
  • Bronchitis, asthma flares, lung inflammation
  • Exacerbation of heart and blood vessel diseases, including heart failure

Not to mention, wildfire smoke (and its impacts) can linger even if you can't see it.

Economic
Wildfires have a massive economic impact at the federal, state, local, and individual family levels. Since the year 2000, 15 fires in the US have each caused at least $1 billion in damages. It’s estimated that the total cost of wildfires in 2017 and 2018 exceeded $40 billion. And in 2020, five of the six largest recorded fires burned in California and Oregon, drastically increasing federal and state expenditures.


What is the largest fire in California history?

Technically, the largest fire in California history is the August Complex, which began in August 2020 and destroyed 1,032,648 acres across the counties of ​​Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Tehama, Glenn, Lake, and Colusa. 

But California continues to fight its second-largest wildfire, Dixie, as we speak. As of July 13, 2021, Dixie has consumed over 500,000 acres — and it’s only 30% contained. In light of this tragedy, we’d like to answer some common questions about Dixie.

Where is the Dixie fire in California?
As of August 11, 2021, the Dixie fire has reached the counties of Butte, Plumas, Lassen, and Tehama. These counties make up the lower portion of Northern California.

How did the Dixie fire start?
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but investigators have reason to believe that power equipment played a role in the ignition. PG&E, the utility company that operates said equipment, said that the fire could have been sparked after a tree fell on one of its power lines.

Where is Greenville California?
This is a common question as of late since Dixie destroyed the town of Greenville, California in the first week of August 2021. Greenville is in Plumas County, about 150 miles north of Sacramento on the northwest side of Indian Valley. 

Dixie currently threatens nearly 14,000 more structures and hundreds of thousands of acres. You can keep track of Dixie via the Incident Information System maintained by The National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

What recent progress has been made? How can we support wildfire mitigation?

When talking about preventing wildfires, it’s important to understand the three components of wildfire risk: 

  1. Likelihood: the probability that a fire will occur based on physical factors, such as the ones listed above
  2. Intensity: the behavior of the fire once it ignites
  3. Susceptibility: the potential effects of the fire on highly valued resources

If we can understand and reduce any of these three aspects, then we’ll reduce the overall impact of wildfires. And how do we do that? Through research, simulations, detailed analyses, public support, policies, funding, and innovation.

Much like the fight against climate change, as a society, we must begin asking ourselves what we can and should do differently to mitigate wildfires. Wildfire researcher, Kimiko Barrett, suggests that building codes and practices are one of our biggest forms of frontline defense.

At both the residential and commercial levels, we must focus on using materials that don’t catch fire easily (especially for rooftops) and creating buffer zones around our properties.

We also can’t lose sight of the fact that this remains a societal issue, not an individual issue. That being said, some households may not be able to afford the fire-minded improvements needed to keep their homes, families, and communities safe. This makes it all the more important to focus on state-wide strategy and policy instead of just focusing on individual homes.

As a brand with a deep calling to support an equitable environmental movement, we continue to explore innovative materials and renewable energy sources, stay up-to-date with building codes, and place a laser focus on sustainability and carbon neutrality. On top of that, we’re dedicated to educating our team members and loyal community on ways to fight climate change and advocate for social justice.

What can you do to help, right now? 

Whether this issue literally hits close to home, or you want to help from afar, here are some action items that allow you to support wildfire relief right away.

  • Advocate for state-wide strategies. This is especially important if you live in an area that’s regularly impacted by wildfires. It’s essential to advocate for state relief to help update older homes that cannot otherwise afford fire-minded defenses. You can reach out to your elected officials at the federal, state, and local levels to express your needs and concerns. 
  • Support the Wildfire Relief Fund. The California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund provides emergency response and ongoing support for affected communities.
  • Donate to the Humane Society in affected areas. For example, The Humane Society of Ventura County rescues and fosters animals when wildfires occur.
  • Volunteer in affected areas. If you’re local, look up different ways to “volunteer near me” and support communities still recovering from recent wildfires and those in high-risk areas.
  • Download the ThatHelps app. Available via the Apple Store or Google Play the ThatHelps app will help you discover new organizations, learn about direct causes to support, read uplifting news, find volunteer opportunities, and organize your own support efforts.

Last, but not least, continue to support companies that outwardly advocate for an equitable environmental movement, limit greenhouse gas emissions, use resources to fight climate change, support efforts to mitigate wildfires, and promote social justice every day.

At 1 Hotels, we not only live by those values in our everyday operations — we only partner with organizations that do the same, and we deeply appreciate all of you that support us.

To minimize the use of plastic in your own life, look around your home and work to identify plastic items. From there, seek to find alternatives.