Our National Parks and forests are an idyllic escape from city life, but in fire season they can turn into a rampage with a single spark. The frequency, ferocity, and size of wildfires in the USA continue to increase each year. With average temperatures rising, the majority of western fires have occurred since 2000. Forest Service employees are now more likely to use the term “fire year” rather than “fire season”, especially with fall rains coming later each successive year.
But just as crews now plan for fires year-round, you can also be prepared for wildfires all year with these fire safety strategies.
The Size of the Problem
In 2019, there were 50,477 wildfires across the nation. California was the worst-hit state, followed by Texas and North Carolina. With fires occurring from coast to coast, it’s no longer a local problem confined to specific regions — not that confinement can be taken for granted. If we look at acres burned, Alaska lost 2,498,159 acres to wildfires in 2019, an area bigger than the entire island of Puerto Rico. While the risk to human life is relatively low, the effects on wildlife and property are devastating.
What is Fire Weather?
Fire season in the Western US spans late spring to early winter. This time period typically corresponds to climate conditions that are ripe for wildfire: high temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall, and high winds. Vegetation is also usually very dry this time of year, allowing for easier fire ignition and rapid fire spread. Dry lightning events can increase chances for ignition.
Sadly, the vast majority — over 85% — of wildfires start through human negligence (such as a poorly attended campfire or discarded cigarette butt), but the cause could also be lightning or malfunctions in utilities or farming equipment.
Fire Watch Ratings Explained
Anyone living in a state or county with a history of or susceptibility to wildfires will be familiar with the system of fire watches issued by the National Weather Service. These fall into four main categories:
- Fire Weather Watch
Alerts landowners and the public that extensive wildfire activity is possible but not imminent in the next 12 to 72 hours.
- Red Flag Warning
Alerts landowners and public to an ongoing or imminent critical fire weather pattern within the next 24 hours — this means with wind speeds above 25mph and humidity below 15%. A city such as Los Angeles typically experiences four to seven Red Flag days a year. Click anywhere on the map to generate a spot forecast for current fire conditions or read the regional discussions here.
- Extreme Fire Behavior
Indicates a wildfire that is likely to rage out of control, either due to the speed of spread, the presence of fire whirls or certain other conditions.
Staying Safe in Fire Season
Hunkering down in a wildfire is never a safe or realistic option. Across the U.S., there are 4.5 million homes at risk of wildfires, of which two million are in California. If a fire is blazing, evacuating the area is the only course of action, having first minimized the hazards around your property.
- Clear away flammable materials, such as debris and fuel tanks, from the home’s perimeter
- Create fuel breaks in the vegetation wherever possible to stop the spread of flames.
- Once a Fire Watch is announced, start planning to leave the area and do not return until officials have clearly stated that it is safe to do so.
How to Monitor Conditions
Homeowners in areas frequently affected by wildfires are accustomed to tuning in regularly to the National Weather Service and local radio stations during fire season or consulting local online maps such as CalFire and InciWeb. What if you’re away from home, however, on a camping or hunting trip? You can still say safe and give yourself time to respond by setting up a weather station with remote monitoring access like the AcuRite Atlas with Lightning Detection on your property. That way, you can check temperature, humidity, and wind levels at your home from anywhere, instead of relying on more general weather forecasts.
Treat fire season with the same diligence and deference that you might apply to hurricane or tornado season. The consequences are no less devastating and ample preparation is just as necessary.
Want to learn more about how AcuRite can keep you prepared for fire season? Check out how Paradise, CA, is recovering from the Camp fire using weather tools and how AcuRite helps Forest Fire Task Forces and the Orange County Parks Department prepare for fire season.