Wildfires move terrifyingly fast, reaching speeds of nearly 15 miles an hour. They literally consume everything in their path, including trees, brush, homes, wildlife and people. More than 100,000 wildfires rage through the U.S., on average, each year, charring and clearing between 4 and 5 million acres. In California, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds contribute to an already serious fire situation by carrying sparks for miles. There is another factor, however, that experts believe to be far more responsible for causing the wildfires in California, and that is people.
We know that wildfires can be caused by nature. Typically, depending on the location, the trigger is lightening or lava. In fact, in remote parts of the world, natural events are the prime sources of wildfires. Not true in California or the rest of the U.S. According to the National Park Service, a good estimate is that 90 percent of wildfires in the U.S. are caused by people. The exact means varies. Some of the more common ones include:
- Burning trash
- Vehicles (sparks from overheated tailpipes, dragging chains while towing, etc)
- Kids playing with fire
- Power tools
In California, the heat during the summer, combined with those Santa Ana winds and ongoing drought conditions make for ideal conditions for wildfires but they still require something to get them started. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) reports that, besides the above list and other, less common sparks, one in five wildfires in California is started by arson.
The motivation behind intentionally setting a fire that has the potential of taking human life and destroying vast amounts of wildlife, property and resources is unfathomable, but, whether by intent or accident, the result is the same. And it can be catastrophic. There is, however, a silver lining to this very dark cloud. Lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions are beyond our control. One day, perhaps, that will change, but no one sees it happening anytime soon. Human behavior, on the other hand, can be changed and, because it is the behavior of people that leads to the vast majority of wildfires, that means we have the ability to make positive changes.
Various organizations, like Cal Fire, are working on those changes as part of their overall mission of preventing fires. They are employing a wide range of programs that include pre-fire engineering, vegetation management, fire planning procedures and, especially, educational programs designed to increase the awareness of fire hazards and steps leading to prevention.
The cause of wildfires and the remedy can be pretty well summed up in this statement from Cal Fire spokesman, Daniel Berlant, “Weather doesn’t cause fires–weather just causes a fire to burn. It’s the people that have the role of actually preventing that fire.”