Drought conditions increase the risk of wildfires. Check the U.S. Forest Service for a map of current wildland fire emergencies and prescribed fires.

Wildfire Basics


Wildfire is a naturally occurring phenomenon with some experts describing it as Mother Nature’s method of housekeeping, i.e., a way to dispose of dead brush, branches, limbs and logs. Wildfire is also a way for fire-dependent species to reproduce and survive. However, wildfire is also caused by human behavior; in these situations often homes are lost or damaged. Wildfires occur around the globe, but certain ingredients such as fuel (vegetation) type, humidity, weather trends and topography make some geographic areas more fire-prone than others. For example, an area with large sections of dry or dead vegetation, or areas with large amounts of resinous plants such as conifers (pines, spruces, etc.), brush, chaparral, or palmetto cause that area to more likely experience a wildfire.

Frequency of Wildfire

The frequency and the intensity of wildfires vary due to fuels, climate and topography. While a state such as Michigan will experience around 8,000 wildfires per year with most under 100 acres in size, other states such as California, will experience tens of thousands of wildfires per year, but most will be under 100 acres in size. We remember the wildfires where many homes are destroyed. The 1991 Oakland Hills fire, where almost 3,000 structures were destroyed covered about 1,500 acres. The 2003 Cedar fire in Southern California burned 275,000 acres and destroyed about 2,400 structures. Often, wildfires occur during specific seasons. For example, in the Great Lakes area, spring is the predominant wildfire season due to extensive fine fuels (grass, leaves) that are left after the snow melts. Couple this with the traditional yard clean-up, including raking and burning, and we see why wildfires are a problem at this time. However, in other states, late spring through fall are the predominant seasons. However, being weather-dependent, wildfires can occur at any time, in any state, depending on conditions.

Wildfire Causes

The cause of wildfires also varies. For instance, in Western states and Florida, up to half of all wildfires are caused by lightning, whereas in the Great Lake States, only around 5 percent are caused by lightning unless there has been an extended drought. In those cases 100 percent of lightning strikes can result in a wildfire.

Other causes of wildfire include carelessness in burning debris, ATV exhaust, equipment fires, campfires, fireworks, downed power lines, arson, children playing with matches, other human activities such as smoking, and even trains.


Slope, hills, valleys, canyons, and mountains have an important effect on wildfire. Wildfire will intensify as it climbs a slope due to “pre-heating” of the fuels immediately up-slope. Canyons and chimneys can funnel winds and the wildfire uphill, creating even more intensity. Some areas are known for high winds, such as in southern California where the Santa Anna winds are well known to increase wildfire intensity. Homes built on these slopes or at the top of ridges are in the direct path of wildfire. This not only means the homes are in the most vulnerable location, but also adds to the problem of evacuation should a wildfire occur.

Protecting Homes and Communities

Protecting Homes & Structures: Firewise Communities Project

The Firewise Communities Project, led by the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) and implemented at the local level by various agencies, fire departments and home owner associations, is designed to help protect homes, structures, and personal property. The essence of the Firewise Program is to help homeowners understand wildfire behavior and threat in their communities and take steps to mitigate (reduce the impact) against wildfire threat. The program recommends such techniques as creating defensible/defendable space around the home to prevent a passing wildfire from igniting the home or surrounding structures.

Additionally, the Wildfire Home Retrofit Guide offers “specific recommendations for how to retrofit existing components of a home to withstand wildfire”. The guide is a product of the University of Nevada, Reno, Extension.

Protecting your Health: Smoke Pollution & Air Quality

View the tips below from AirNow.gov to protect yourself from wildfire smoke.

Use common sense. If it looks smoky outside, it’s probably not a good time to mow the lawn or go for a run. And it’s probably not a good time for your children to play outdoors.

Pay attention to local air quality reports. Stay alert to smoke-related news coverage or health warnings.

Visit AirNow to find out the Air Quality Index in your area. As smoke gets worse, the amount of particles in the air changes – and so do the steps you should take to protect yourself. AirNow recommends precautions you can take to protect your health when air pollution gets bad.

If you are advised to stay indoors, take steps to keep indoor air as clean as possible. When smoke levels are high, try to avoid using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves – and even candles! Don’t vacuum. That stirs up particles already inside your home. And don’t smoke. That puts even more pollution in your lungs, and in the lungs of people around you.

If you have asthma or other lung disease, make sure you follow your doctor’s directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma management plan. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.

Run your air conditioner if you have one. Keep the fresh air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside. Note: If you don’t have an air conditioner, staying inside with the windows closed may be dangerous in extremely hot weather. In these cases, seek alternative shelter.

If you have heart or lung disease, if you are an older adult, or if you have children, talk with your doctor about whether and when you should leave the area. When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors, even though you may not be able to see them.

To track wildfires across the U.S., go to Fire and Smoke Map.

Protecting Communities: Community Wildfire Protection Planning

Communities can work together to protect against wildfire by developing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). This process involves local, state and federal agencies as well as officials who identify the wildfire threats to the community and look for coordinated ways to mitigate the hazard. Typically one or more area assessments are made by wildfire experts to identify and evaluate fuel threats or vulnerabilities, such as lack of egress roads, fire protection capacity, water resources, etc. Once the CWPP has been developed and approved, it serves as a guide for local officials to follow as steps are taken to reduce wildfire vulnerability to the community. Agencies, such as the USDA Forest Service, State Department of Natural Resources (or equivalent), university Cooperative Extension Services, fire departments, local planning officials and homeowners (usually working with their local Firewise or Firesafe organization), work together to complete a CWPP.

Resources for Extension Educators

These resources for homeowners, firefighters, designers and developers, youth, and families:

FireWise.org: The national Firewise USA® recognition program provides a collaborative framework to help neighbors in a geographic area get organized, find direction, and take action to increase the ignition resistance of their homes and community and to reduce wildfire risks at the local level.

Wildfires on Ready.gov: An official website of the U.S Department of Homeland Security

Living with Fire: Bridging the gap between science and action, we convene communities and stakeholders to address the challenges of wildfire. Through trusted partnerships, we create science-based education and outreach programs that equitably address emerging social and ecological needs. LWF is a collaborative effort among federal, state, local firefighting agencies, and resource management agencies. LWF is managed by University of Nevada Reno, Extension.

AirNow.gov: Offers educational resources for youth to learn about Air Quality, pollution and wildfires. Resources include youth curriculum and activites, as well as an Air Quality map and wildfire tracker.