Science And Environment: How Wildfires Work

Wildfire characteristics are determined by natural factors such as fuel, oxygen, and heat.

Wildfires are one of the most dreaded of natural occurrences. All it takes is a spark from a cigarette tossed out a car window or even a lightening blast and wildfires find their beginning. In recent years they have done tremendous economic damage as they have swept across forests and prairies destroying all that fell within their paths. Wildfires often have certain positive impacts, however, impacts that are often overlooked when we are faced with thousands of acres of scorched land and destroyed human developments.

Wildfires have a life of their own. That life depends of three very critical factors. Those factors are fuel, oxygen, and heat. Each of these factors must be present in order for a wildfire to start. As they vary so do the characteristics of the fire. Additional factors such as wind, weather, topography, and the prevalent vegetation enter into the precise manner in which wildfires work as well.

Heat, of course, in necessary to start a fire. Wildfires can start from the rays of the sun alone. Lightening is another natural precipitator for fire. In recent times, however, many wildfires have been started by the negligent actions of man. However they start, wildfires can rage across thousands of acres in a very short period of time.



A wildfire's direction, speed, and how much damage it leaves in its wake are determined by a complex interaction of the factors noted above. How wet an area is couples with the amount of available fuel, the predominant wind direction and speed, and the specifics of the terrain to determine how long a fire will linger in a particular area or even whether it will go into that area in the first place. The type of vegetation that is in a particular area is also an important determinant. Pine forests and prairies are fire dependent communities, in fact. These communities must have fire in order to maintain a precise ratio of the plants and animals that live there.

Despite the tremendous damage they can do, therefore, wildfires are an important component in our world's ecological balance. Wildfires work to keep species of plants and animals in ratio to one another, reduce disease, and recycle nutrients from the dead plant material that builds up on a forest and prairie floors. Fire can even be a critical determinant in seed germination for some plant species. Most of the time, however, man seems intent on preventing fires rather than allowing them to run their natural course. The result is areas where dead vegetation builds up to levels where when a fire does occur that fire can be devastating in its impacts.

Wildfires do indeed have a life of their own. That life, however, is determined by very specific factors. These factors include natural factors such as fuel, oxygen, and heat but also factors such as man's actions in a particular area. Too often when we try to prevent a natural phenomena such as wildfire not only are we unsuccessful but the ultimate result is worse than it would have been had we allowed things to run their course. While obviously we cannot allow our homes and other developments to burn, planning where we place those developments should entail a consideration of the factors that figure into the characteristics of wild fires.

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