Fire season is a regular occurrence in many areas. In recent years the size and scope of wildfires has grown, leading to an increased risk of populated areas being affected by fire. What might come as a surprise is the majority of forest fires are caused by human activity. This can include anything from a carelessly tossed cigarette butt to outright arson, but most human caused fires are deemed accidental.
Wildfires play an important role in the life cycle of forests. They burn away dead fall from the forest floor, return nutrients to the soils, and set the scene for new growth. Many tree seeds and pine cones have a thick wax that releases new seeds only when the cone is burned, and invasive plant and animal species are naturally controlled through fire. For this reason we don’t want to eliminate forest fires outright, but rather control them so they don’t cause damage to populated land. One of the most important methods of control is to prevent wildfires near people or buildings before they start.
We can help prevent wildfires by following a few basic steps:
Before heading out into the woods, check the local fire ratings. This provides important information about the level of fire danger in the area, in addition to any fire bans that may be active. When the fire danger is elevated we must be mindful to obey all fire restrictions. In times of high fire ratings, campfires are banned but propane fires are typically allowed. While you might miss the smell and crackle from burning logs in the fire, portable gas campfires offer a safer and legal option that still allows for the opportunity to roast marshmallows during fire bans.
When hiking or driving through areas with elevated risk of fire, it’s necessary to fully extinguish cigarettes, cigars, etc. Failure to do so can lead to large fines if a person is caught carelessly discarding a smouldering butt. Flicking a lit cigarette butt out the window of a moving vehicle is enough to cause a massive fire if the conditions are dry. It’s one of the most common sources of human caused forest fires. Remember that a fire will often travel faster than a person can jog. Tossing away any sort of burning ember on the trail or side of the road puts you and other people at serious risk.
Don’t drive off road in tall or dry grass. Modern off road vehicles are equipped with spark arrestors on their exhaust, which can leave operators with a false sense of safety; in truth they still cause a large number of wildfires from hot engine parts igniting dry forest fuels. Even the family SUV can cause ignition from an exhaust pipe rubbing against dry grass or branches. You might not realize that you’ve left behind the beginnings of a forest fire until it’s too late. Prevent this by staying on the roads and out of tall or dry grass. If you stick to the established trails during fire season, the risk of your vehicle starting a fire is greatly reduced.
Employ common sense. When we’re in bear country we use caution to prevent any unwanted bear encounters by making noise and keeping food and scented items away from tents. Similar caution and common sense must be used during fire season. Make sure that any grass, twigs and leaves are cleared away when cooking with a gas camp stove. Fully extinguish sources of ignition, like cigarette butts or mosquito coils. Keep updated on the local fire rating and observe any restrictions. And refrain from behaviour that could start a fire. If this means leaving the fireworks behind, skipping the campfire, or keeping vehicles on the trail, then it’s a worthy sacrifice to prevent a wildfire.
Fires are a normal part of our ecosystems. It’s important for the forest to be regularly allowed to burn in a controlled manner. But the majority of wild fires near populated areas are human caused and pose a serious risk to people, animals, and structures. We can prevent tragedy by being aware of our behaviour and acting in ways that minimize the chances of causing a source of ignition. A person can’t outrun a forest fire on foot and buildings are difficult to protect, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to prevent human caused fires from starting whenever possible.