Top 5 Ways That Wildfires Start

A house burns during the Woolsey Fire on Nov. 9, 2018, in Malibu, California. Residents of Thousand Oaks are threatened by the ignition of two nearby dangerous wildfires, including the Woolsey Fire, which has reached the Pacific Coast at Malibu. David McNew/Getty Images

Plenty of natural phenomena can turn the landscape into a blazing inferno and send wildlife racing for safety. Lightning, volcanoes, dragons -- all are devastating forces of fiery destruction that can start a conflagration in seconds. But despite how destructive it sounds, fire isn't always bad for a forest. In some ways it destroys, but it can also revitalize, clearing away cluttered brush and leaving fertilized soil and fresh growing space in its wake. In fact, some ecosystems depend on a regular fire regime to spur processes such as reproduction and germination.

Humans have long recognized the rejuvenating power of fire. Systematic burning gave greater access to food, for example, opening land for foraging and cultivation. And although the practice is less common today, many prescribed fires (also known as controlled burns) are set each year to coax swathes of land back to a fully functioning state.

But while fire can be fundamental for promoting healthy forest growth, sometimes too much of it is a bad thing -- especially when a blaze swells out of control and threatens homes and other important infrastructure. That's where the concept of a wildfire enters the scene. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group defines a wildfire as an "unplanned, unwanted wildland fire" including:

  • Unauthorized human-caused wildland fires
  • Escaped naturally caused wildland fires
  • Escaped prescribed wildland fires
  • Other wildland fires that need to be put out

Sometimes human-caused wildfires are set intentionally as an act of arson. It's often tricky for authorities to determine whether arson has actually been committed, but you can find out about some of their methods in How do investigators determine if a wildfire was caused by arson?

However, in this article, we'll be focusing on five fiery mistakes that can have catastrophic ecological and economic consequences if the flames burst out of control. Continue reading so you can find out how to avoid them and make Smokey Bear proud the next time you head off into the hills.