Can you really fight fire with fire?

Controlled Burns and Backfiring

A U.S. Forest Service hotshot uses a drip torch to light a backfire. A drip torch dribbles and ignites fuel (usually either diesel or stove oil) at the pull of a trigger.
A U.S. Forest Service hotshot uses a drip torch to light a backfire. A drip torch dribbles and ignites fuel (usually either diesel or stove oil) at the pull of a trigger.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In pondering a fire's hunger and growth, it's easy to think of it as some form of organism -- like a rat infestation. In addition to putting out poison, major metropolitan areas such as London encourage residents to help combat rodent infestations through anti-litter campaigns. You don't want rats in your home? Great, don't litter the streets with a buffet of fast-food garbage.

Likewise, you can help prevent the spread of forest fires by keeping less fuel sitting around. Around the home, this strategy often means keeping your property free of vegetation that could act as fuel. If you're managing a farm, forest or grassland, it often pays to conduct a controlled burn. In this scenario, wildlife managers set fire to an area under controlled conditions, burning fuel that could potentially feed a future wildfire. The burn creates a manmade firebreak, or gap, in combustible material to contain spreading wildfires.

Such burns can make nearby homeowners nervous even if they are, for the most part, controlled, and even if they do knowingly live in a fire zone. Deliberate fires occasionally don't go as planned, as was the case when the National Park Service set a fire that consumed 200 homes near Los Alamos, N.M., in 2000 [source: Egan].

Don't fret over the burned vegetation, though. Grass and forest fires are a natural occurrence. In a world free of humans, they'd still occur thanks to lighting strikes, sparks from falling rocks, volcanic activity and the spontaneous combustion of organic materials. While an occasional burn might greatly inconvenience local human populations, it's all a part of the natural ecological cycle.

Some plant species actually depend on fire as part of their reproductive cycle, while others evolved long ago to weather regular wildfires. Sequoia seeds, for example, actually remain dormant until fire breaks down the seeds' outer coating [source: Science Daily]. As such, a good controlled burn can also aid the environment by stimulating local vegetation.

Backfiring is an additional take on the controlled burn, though to return to the rodent analogy, this one is more "The rats hordes are coming! Hide all the food!" In this strategy, firefighters attempt to halt the advance of a wildfire (or redirect it) by burning up fuel in its path. Several different fire-spreading gadgets help firefighters pull this off, including forest fire torches or fusses (which work much like a road flare), propane torches and drip torches.

Explore the links below to learn even more about wildfires and firefighting.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Ainsworth, Jack and Troy Alan Doss. "Natural History of Fire & Flood Cycles." California Coastal Commission. Aug. 18, 1995.
  • "Controlled burn." Science Daily. 2009. (Oct. 20, 2009)
  • Egan, Timothy. "Ideas & Trends; Why Foresters Prefer to Fight Fire with Fire." New York Times. Aug. 20, 2000.
  • "Firing Devices (Fusees, Drip Torches)." Forest Encyclopedia Network. 2009. (Oct. 20, 2009)
  • Forestry Suppliers Inc. 2009. (Oct. 20, 2009)
  • Martin, Gary. "Fight fire with fire." The Phrase Finder. 2009. (Oct. 20, 2009)