Forest fires are important in wooded ecosystems because they help the regeneration of healthy plants and growth. However, too much fire can destroy biodiversity and the smoke can contribute to air pollution. Forest fires are caused by many different factors such as lightning strikes and brush fires sparks, but human error is the leading cause of these devastating wildfires.
The main causes of forest fires
85% of wildfires are caused by humans. While natural activities such as lightning and brush/grass fires can spark a raging fire, they are much more likely to come from human activities like abandoned campfires and arson.
Prominent historical fires
Throughout history, there have been thousands of major wildfires. However, there are five that stand out for their size and/or impact:
Saddleworth Moor Fire - United Kingdom (2018)
Over the years, the number of forest fires in the U.K. have been increasing. The recent fire in Saddleworth Moor was one of the most impactful in the country's history, resulting in 150 people being evacuated from their homes. The fire was reportedly started by a group of bikers early in the day, and although it was responsibly put out, smoldering peat hidden under the ground's surface caused a reignition of the flames. The military was brought in to contain the blaze, and the leftover ash and other particles created a low-hanging haze that swept across the nearby city of Great Manchester, resulting in a spike in respiratory issues of the area's inhabitants and increased air pollution levels.
Wallow Fire - U.S.A. (2011)
The Wallow Fire was sparked by two men camping in Arizona's Bear Wallow Wilderness. The campfire accidentally blew out of control, burning through half a million acres of land. 6,000 people had to be evacuated and over $100 million was spent on cleanup and recovery efforts.
Brandenburg Fire - Germany (2018)
Across Europe, wildfires have been rapidly increasing due to longer, hotter, and drier summers. The Brandenburg Fire's cause was never determined, but local authorities linked it to a likely case of arson. Three villages had to be evacuated, and the smoky haze drifted all the way to Berlin, causing residents to lock themselves inside to avoid the toxic smoke. To make matters worse, there were leftover undetonated munitions from WWII around the area, which began to explode from the heat of the fire.
Uttarakhand Fires - India (2016)
Uttarakhand is a forest-covered region in northern India. Throughout 2016, these forests were plagued with man-caused fires -- over 1,600, to be exact. This drastic number was suspected to be due to people concealing illegal timber activity or seed collectors attempting to scare away animals.
Impact of forest fires
Fires often bring ecological and infrastructure damage, such as buildings burning down or forest devastation. Thousands of people die every year to these fires, but the damage and death often brings important policy discussions to the tables of local and federal government agencies. One example is the Black Saturday fires of 2009, which led to a reconsideration of landscape-related fire policies. Forest fires often come with hefty financial costs that are placed on cities or the government, costing hundreds of millions of dollars to contain and cleanup.
Fires also may lead to health effects for people who were involved with them, a reduction in tourism near the affected area, decreasing nearby home values, and disruption to local traffic.
While forest fires are a concerning issue and are becoming more prominent around the world, there are things that you as an individual can do to make sure you do not contribute to the statistics by starting an accidental fire. Ensure that you never start a fire on a windy day, or leave one unattended. If you're burning waste, never burn anything highly combustible near brush or other flammable material.