How Wildfires Start

How do wildfires start?

As of this writing, major wildfires are raging in Washington, Oregon and California. If you’re watching the news, it seems like a new wildfire is starting and generating catastrophic damage to areas all around the US. But how are these wildfires actually starting?
There are 4 main factors that affect whether a wildfire gets started or not:

Natural Causes:

Lightning Strikes are a common cause of wildfires




Lightning Strikes
: Lightning during thunderstorms can ignite wildfires when it strikes dry vegetation. The heat from the lightning can start a fire if the surrounding conditions are conducive.
Volcanic Activity: Volcanic eruptions can release hot materials that ignite surrounding vegetation.
Spontaneous Combustion: Decomposing organic materials, such as peat, can generate heat and eventually lead to ignition if the conditions are right.

Human Causes:

Human errors such as leaving a burning cigarette on the ground is another common ignitor of a wildfire

Unattended Campfires: Campfires that are not properly extinguished can spread to surrounding vegetation and start a wildfire.
Discarded Cigarettes: Throwing cigarette butts on dry grass or forests can lead to ignition.
Burning Debris: Uncontrolled burning of trash or yard waste can escalate into a wildfire if not managed properly.
Powerlines: Electrical malfunctions in power lines can produce sparks that ignite nearby vegetation.
Equipment Sparks: Operating machinery or tools that create sparks, such as chainsaws or welding equipment, near dry vegetation can start fires.
Arson: Deliberate acts of arson, where individuals intentionally start fires, are unfortunately a common cause of wildfires.

Human-Induced Climate Factors:

Climate Change: Rising temperatures and prolonged periods of drought due to climate change can create conditions that facilitate the spread of wildfires. Dry vegetation becomes more susceptible to ignition and rapid spread.
Human-Induced Landscape Factors:
Urban Interface: The proximity of human settlements to natural areas can increase the likelihood of wildfires. Human activities can introduce ignition sources near flammable vegetation.
Invasive Species: Some non-native plant species can increase fuel loads and make ecosystems more susceptible to ignition and rapid fire spread.

Preventing wildfires involves a combination of proper land management, responsible human behavior, and preparedness efforts. This includes adhering to fire safety regulations, being cautious with fire-related activities, maintaining defensible spaces around properties in fire-prone areas, and having effective firefighting and emergency response strategies in place.

How do wildfires spread?

Wildfires have that chaotic word in the name – “wild” which means they can definitely get out of control and typically spread uncontrollably. Our partners that are on the front lines combatting these wildfires typically can’t put out the wildfires unless they can contain them. Knowing how they spread is a vital factor in making sure we can keep them under control.

Wildfires spread through a combination of factors that involve the interaction of the fire triangle: fuel, oxygen, and heat. The spread of wildfires can be complex and dynamic, influenced by weather conditions, topography, and the characteristics of the vegetation in the area. Here are some of the key ways wildfires spread:

Radiant Heat Transfer: As a fire burns, it releases intense heat energy that can preheat nearby fuels, causing them to ignite even before direct flames reach them. This process, known as radiant heat transfer, allows the fire to spread rapidly by igniting new areas ahead of the main fire front.
Direct Flame Contact: Flames directly touching and igniting nearby vegetation is a common way wildfires spread. This can occur when fire front advances into unburned areas.
Embers and Spotting: Burning pieces of vegetation, called embers or firebrands, can be carried by wind currents over long distances. These embers can start new fires when they land on dry fuels, potentially far ahead of the main fire front. This is known as spotting and can lead to the rapid expansion of wildfires.
Convection Currents: The intense heat generated by a wildfire can create strong upward-moving air currents, known as convection currents. These currents can lift burning materials and carry them over barriers like roads, rivers, or firebreaks, allowing the fire to spread to new areas.
Topography: The shape of the land can significantly influence fire behavior. Fires tend to spread more rapidly uphill due to increased preheating of fuels and the alignment of wind with the slope. The fire's behavior can change when it moves between different types of terrain, such as from grasslands to forests.
Wind: Wind plays a critical role in the spread of wildfires. Strong winds can carry embers over long distances, push flames more rapidly, and create fire whirls (fire tornadoes) that carry burning materials aloft, causing rapid fire spread.
Fuel Availability and Dryness: Dry, combustible vegetation serves as fuel for wildfires. Drought conditions, dead vegetation, and accumulated dry debris increase the likelihood of ignition and fire spread.
Firebreaks and Control Lines: Firebreaks are areas where vegetation has been cleared or modified to create a barrier that can slow down or stop the spread of a fire. Control lines are areas where firefighters remove vegetation or create a firebreak to contain a fire's advance.

Understanding these factors is crucial for firefighting efforts, as they guide strategies to manage and control wildfires. Firefighters work to contain fires by constructing control lines, backburning (controlled burns to remove fuel ahead of the fire), and using aircraft to drop water or fire retardant to slow down fire spread.

Predicting and managing fire behavior is a complex science that involves monitoring weather patterns, fuel moisture levels, and topographical features to effectively mitigate the impact of wildfires.

How can you be prepared for a wildfire?

We have a more in depth article on how to prepare and survive a wildfire emergency -, however, below are steps you can take to make sure you are a prepared for a wildfire.

1.) Recognize if you are in a high-risk region for wildfires. The western and northwestern states tend to have the most wildfires in the US. If you live in California, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, or Montana, you are more prone to wildfires.
2.) Always make sure you have an emergency kit ready to go. It’s often said that the fire itself isn’t what kills people, but the smoke. So having a gas mask or respirator in your “go bag” is essential in being prepared for a wildfire. You can check out our wildfire collection at
3.) Create an emergency escape plan for you and your loved ones. Communicate and practice with your family on where you should meet up in case of a wildfire emergency that is a safe distance away from the smoke and flames.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding wildfires and how you can best stay protected, feel free to reach out to us at or give us a call at +1 855 715 1400.

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