WHY WILDFIRES ARE SO HARD TO CONTAIN

Wildfires are sort of a double-edged sword. Of course, they are most notorious as a destructive force, burning properties and vibrant trees and brush anywhere and everywhere in their paths.

On the other side, wildfires can be very cleansing to the area in the aftermath, as the ashes left behind serve as food and fertilizer for the rebirth of the area, as has been seen in several western states following massive fires.

No matter which side you fall on, wildfires that are active do put a lot of land, property, structures and human lives at great risk, and they often demand massive firefighter response to contain and eventually extinguish them so as to eliminate the risk to property and human life.

But do you notice that even as the fire grows and as personnel comes onto the scene to fight the blaze, that these wildfires are ultimately difficult to contain even after all of the firefighting assets are in place and doing the work?

Fire, especially when it grows beyond a campfire or fireplace, starts to take on its own personality – humanlike in that it can be unpredictable and create its own environment in which to thrive. And often, firefighters have to think “like the fire” and “be” the fire in order to stay safe and be able to successfully fight it and subdue it.

What makes a wildfire so difficult to contain? We can look at the Mendocino Complex fire in California, which was still burning as the largest wildfire in California’s history. A fire this large will have many factors in its favor to keep burning for a while, even as fire crews have continued to fight the blaze for the better part of a month now.

  • The challenge is that firefighters need less heat and more humidity, but most wildfires occur in seasons when it is dry and hot. Those conditions have prevailed most of the time at Mendocino Complex, though firefighters have gotten breaks with increased humidity at night recently.
  • Many wildfires don’t burn in flat area with little or no brush. They are often in very rugged, mountainous, and sometimes dense forest land. The kind of terrain that is very difficult for humans and vehicles to get to, and forests are obviously ripe areas to add fuel to a fire.
  • Wind can change on a dime, which is why were put it separate from weather. Whether humid or dry, rainy or sunny, the existence or non-existence of wind can dramatically affect a fire. A gust from the south one minute can push a fire into a barrier, while a flip to the east could send the fire right into structures or help it jump over a highway or other roadway.
  • Self-weatherizing. As fires get bigger, not only do they develop their own personality, but they become their own weather system. As they take up a lot of land, it can perpetuate itself into expansion by drying out the air and the ground around it, increasing the temperature of the area, and as creating its own wind I the direction is “wants” to go. This is where firefighters have the most difficulty; getting into the “mind” of a fire to understand its weather “pattern” and try to predict where it might go next.

As you can see and imagine, there are so many variables that are difficult to predict and overcome. These are the reasons that wildfires grow and are so hard to contain – and why they are such a destructive force in the western U.S.