How Do Wildfires Start?

A wildfire occurs when sparks or flames from one or more of a variety of sources spread into forested wildlands. Any region in the world can experience a wildfire. That said, since all of these outdoor fires need fuel and oxygen to start and continue burning, wildfires most often occur in areas that have a lot of dry or semi-dry vegetation and high winds.

As noted by the U.S. National Park Service, data from 2000 to 2017 in the U.S. Forest Service Research Data Archive revealed that natural phenomenon cause only a little over 15% of wildfires each year. Humans are the source of almost 85 percent of fires in areas designated as wildlands, including rural forests and parks.

California WildfireSource: Stratos Brilakis / Shutterstock
Source: Stratos Brilakis / Shutterstock

Wildfires also often spread into human settlements and cost billions of dollars to combat and tens of billions in related damage. Consider the following sources of sparks and flames:

The Sun

Sunlight reflecting off a glass or metal piece can narrow into a beam that heats a surface up like a laser. The resulting heat ignites any dry or flammable material. Even if sunlight results in a single isolated fire, sparks from that fire can travel far distances in the air and set off other fires.

Lightning Strikes

lightning strikesSource: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Any type of electrostatic discharge can ignite materials. One of the most common ways wildfires start is when a simple strike of lightning, an electrostatic discharge, hits a forested area that has experienced a dry season. Multiple strikes across a wide area from the same weather system can set off multiple fires that can combine into one massive wildfire.

Power Lines

The electrical discharge from power lines is another common wildfire source. For example, a transformer can experience uncontrolled electrical arcs that cause sparks to fall near a pole onto dry grass or other materials. A vehicle accident or high winds can cause power lines to break and spark near a dry field or forested area.

Common Machinery

lawnmowerSource: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Any type of commonly used equipment can create sparks. For example, a wildfire can start when a homeowner uses a poorly maintained, sparking lawnmower near dry grass or shrubs.

Sparks can also form when metal attachments on a lawnmower or heavy construction equipment hit a rock, a hobbyist cuts metal during an outdoor project, and a train travels down hot, metal railroad tracks.

Camp Fires

campfireSource: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

One of the most common causes of wildfires that isn’t related to weather phenomena or electricity is a simple campfire. Many people leave fires smoldering overnight or fail to properly put out fires before turning in or leaving a campsite entirely, which often results in sparks floating through the air. Other camp-style fires include barbecue grills and pits. Although some states offer grilling sites for campers, they advise against or ban entirely usage during fire seasons.

Gender Reveal Parties

As seen recently, a gender reveal party by soon-to-be parents had caused a wildfire that decimated forests and human settlements. Typically, people set off a small explosion or fireworks in a field to reveal a color associated with a specific gender.

Gender Reveal PartiesSource: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

One or more sparks start the fire or fires that spread to nearby forests.

Intentional Fires

Some wildfires start because a person sets fire with the intent to cause harm. Although, by definition, a wildfire is “unplanned,” intentional wildfires result when someone commits arson near or in wild lands. For example, they intentionally burn a house, business, or car. There have also been instances when someone had intentionally thrown a lit flare. Some had set off fireworks in an area where they knew their actions would result in a wildfire.

Other Causes

Wildfire causesSource: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Wildfires also happen after a person burns trash and other debris outdoors in a barrel or open pit. They occur when someone doesn’t completely put out a cigarette, cigar, or similar product and then tosses it out a moving vehicle or in an inappropriate spot outdoors.

Hunters and other gun owners can cause wildfires when their hot bullet casings hit dry materials on the ground. Even the hot soot or exhaust pipe from a motor vehicle can ignite nearby dry vegetation.

Although humans can’t stop wildfires caused by natural phenomenon, we can reduce the total number of wildfires per year. We merely need to take extra precautions and make lifestyle changes. 

You can reduce wildfires on an individual level. You need to maintain awareness of drought and heat warnings and act accordingly regarding forgoing the use of campfires, barbecue pits, and burning barrels. Additionally, keep the area around your home clear of flammable materials, such as trash and dry vegetation. Only use sparking equipment when you have a fire extinguisher close at hand. Lastly, you can contact the authorities if you see someone ignoring local fire season alerts and recommended preventative measures.


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