The term wildfire is one we are seeing and hearing more frequently. That’s because wildfires — unplanned fires that burn in natural areas — can be extremely harmful to nature, wildlife and humans. Roughly 70,000 wildfires have been documented since 1983. It is expected that the actual number of wildfires, including those that went undocumented, is even higher.
Federal wildfire agencies have been tracking wildfires and the acreage they burn since the early 1980s. The 10 years with the most acreage burned have all occurred since 2004. Data suggests that more acreage is burned during the warmest years, with most of the fires occurring during spring and summer.
Grasslands, forests and prairies provide ecosystems that are essential to all creatures, including humans. These are the areas that are most impacted by wildfires. The harm caused to these ecosystems depletes essential resources — affecting the environment as well as the economy.
Studies have shown that climate change has begun increasing the frequency of wildfires, the acreage burned and the length of the wildfire season.
Wildfire Fighting Tactics
Wildfires can be caused by humans or natural occurrences, such as lightning. They can lead to major losses for wildlife and communities — including the loss of natural resources, crops, animals, property and human lives.
Wildfires and volcanic activity led to 2,400 deaths worldwide between 1998 and 2017, and more than 6.2 million people were affected. This number is expected to rise as climate change continues.
The act of fighting a wildfire is known as wildland firefighting. The following are wildfire tactics used by firefighters to help save our country’s prairies, grasslands and more right now:
- Create a control line: Creating a control line is one of the oldest wildfire firefighting tactics. It is used for wildfires as well as structural fires. The control line is the boundary firefighters create to keep a fire from spreading. Natural control lines for wildfires may be rivers or rocky areas that are less likely to burn than grasslands or forest.
- Burnout: The strategy of burnout involves creating barrier along the control line that is fuel-free. This may involve burning the brush in front of the control line to prevent the fire from growing beyond the set boundary.
- Flanking: Flanking is used for smaller wildfires. It involves attacking the fire from behind, starting in the area that has already been burned. Firefighters then spray the flames as they circle the perimeter of the fire.
- Backburning: Backburning is a tactic similar to burnout. This skilled approach involves starting a smaller fire inside the control line but downwind from the original fire. The goal is to push the smaller blaze toward the larger one to burn all the fuel that lies inside the control line.
- Aerial attack: The aerial attack is the wildfire fighting tactic we most often see on TV and in the movies. This tactic is used if the fire is occurring near exposed water sources. Helicopters and planes will collect water from that source in large buckets and drop the water, which may be mixed with a foam fire retardant, on top of the fire.
- Hot spotting: Hot spotting the fire involves locating the areas of the fire that are the hottest and most dangerous. Firefighting crews determine where these areas are and attack them first.
- Cold trailing: This technique is performed by a group of firefighters who will track the area of land that has already burned. They will extinguish all remaining coals and embers, so they cannot create another wildfire.
- Mop-up: Like cold trailing, a mop-up involves attacking any small fires or embers that have crossed the control line. It may also include removing or protecting fuels that could be impacted if a fire were to begin once more.
Impacts of Wildfires
Wildfires are not always contained to the wilderness. They may spread into populated areas — catching homes, businesses and other buildings on fire. This puts citizens and firefighters at even more risk.
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