How do wildfires start?

Date:29 November 2019 Author: Leila Stein

Year on year it seems that there are ever-increasing numbers of wildfires happening all over the world. From the most recent Australian bush fires to Cape Town’s summer mountain fires, these massive infernos destroy vegetation, endanger wildlife and incinerate homes. With South Africa being warned that it will experience the worst fire season yet, how exactly do these wildfires start?

Fires need three elements to start: fuel, oxygen and a heat source. In South Africa, drought and dry conditions have made areas more susceptible to fires, especially since fynbos provides abundant, good fuel. Alongside that, strong winds make it easier for a fire to become completely out of control.

Although they are classified as natural disasters, it is incredibly unlikely to have a fire start without human interference. According to National Geographic, in the US only 10-15% occur on their own, sparked by an accidental incident. This could be as a result of a lightning strike into very dry grass or a fault like an electric cable collapsing.

According to the Western Cape Government, there are six main reasons wildfires start:

  • Intentional: Arson is a malicious and criminal act of deliberately starting fires.
  • Smoking: Discarded cigarette butts can also cause wildfires, either from workers working in the fields or bush, passing pedestrians or motorists.
  • Cooking fires: Open fires for cooking and discarded hot ashes can cause wildfires, particularly in nature conservation areas or on farms.
  • Burning of debris: Permitted and unpermitted burning of debris, if badly managed or if weather conditions change suddenly, can cause fires.
  • Lightning: Lightning is a cause of both wildfires and structural fires.

While the causes of fires may not have changed over the years, climate change has made fire seasons around the world longer and contributed to conditions that make it easier for a fire to become out of control.

“Now, we are seeing fires that are unusual, like the Camp Fire that, at one point, burned through 70,000 acres [about 280 square km] in a day. We’ve never seen that before,” Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire analyst for the University of California to Live Science, in an article about US wildfires.

Image: Pixabay

Latest Issue :

Sept-October 2021