What to Know About Preventing Wildfires

Medically Reviewed by Sanjay Ponkshe on June 03, 2024
5 min read

A wildfire is an unplanned fire that spreads across terrains like grassland or forest. This is different than controlled burns, also called prescribed burns, that people create deliberately to prevent more extreme wildfires and help to care for the land.

By following these tips, you can reduce the risk of creating a spark that turns into a wildfire.

Wondering how to stop wildfires? Many wildfires can be prevented by paying attention to fire safety when you are working or having fun outside. 

Whatever you are doing outdoors, have a shovel and fire extinguisher nearby to put out fires. It's also useful to keep your cell phone nearby so you can call 911 if needed. Early intervention can prevent a wildfire from spreading.

Using motorized equipment. If you live in an area where wildfires happen, you must be conscious when using motorized equipment outdoors.

  • Avoid mowing your lawn after 10 am. Do not mow when it is extra dry or windy.
  • Do not run your lawnmower over rocks.
  • Make sure all your equipment, including tractors, lawnmowers, harvesters, and chain saws, has a spark arrester to prevent sparks.
  • Keep your motorized equipment in good condition.
  • Don't top off fuel tanks and always use the proper fuel for the device or vehicle.
  • Get proper permits for outdoor grinding or welding.
  • Create 10 feet of brush clearance before starting any grinding or welding projects outside.
  • Never drive your car or any vehicle onto dry brush.

Campfires. Before you go on any camping trip, check if a permit will be required for a camping stove or campfire. In the US, permits are always required on public lands, and may or may not be required for other campgrounds. Before your trip, check for fire restrictions in the area. When you arrive at the campground, check in with a ranger or camp host, if one is present, about fire restrictions.

When you are ready to build your campfire, choose a flat area. Clear an area of at least 10 feet around your desired location. Clear away any brush, grass, and dead leaves down to the soil. Dig a shallow depression in the center and put a ring of rocks around it. Make your fire only as large as it needs to be. 

Never leave your fire unattended and do not let children tend to a fire alone. Keep a shovel and a bucket of water nearby if possible.

Put out the fire properly before you go to sleep. First, dump water on the fire. Then, stir it with a stick to see if there are any more embers. If there are, put more water on it. Once you feel the fire is out, check the remains with the back of your hand. If it still feels hot, put more water on it repeat the stirring process. Use the same method for putting out charcoal grills at home or while camping.

Shooting practice. Some public lands are available for recreational shooting activities like target practice or hunting. Hot bullet fragments can start fires, especially on dry and windy days.

  • Always shoot at paper or clay targets. Using metal ones can create sparks.
  • Use lead-core bullets for the lowest wildfire risk.
  • Avoid using exploding targets or ammunition that is designed to cause fires (incendiary ammunition).
  • Always get the proper permit for shooting or hunting.

Residential Burns. If you would like to burn yard waste instead of throwing it in the trash, check for local permit requirements. Burn only natural vegetation. Not only is likely it bad for your health to burn plastic, tires, and other household waste, it may be illegal in your area.

Place your burn pile away from power lines, trees overhead, buildings, and cars or other motorized equipment. Create a clearing of 10 feet around your burn pile and wet the area around the pile before you burn. Keep your fire smaller and add more debris as the fire dies down instead of putting all the debris on at once. Stay with the fire until it is completely out. To put it out, put water on it and stir the ashes. Check the burn pile for the next few days just to be sure the fire is fully out.

Driving. Make sure your car does not have any parts dragging on the ground. Instead of using chains use a ball and hitch for towing. Make sure your tires and brakes are in good condition. All of these car maintenance tips help to prevent sparks that may create a wildfire.

Wildfire prevention at home. If you live next to wildlands, create a clearing of at least 30 feet around your home. This may protect your home during a wildfire, and may also help to prevent one from occurring. Consider using fire-resistant landscaping techniques like using rock or composted mulch flower beds, choosing plants that are more fire-resistance, and avoiding having plants within five feet of a deck.

Smoking safety. If you are a smoker, never put out your cigarette on a tree stump or toss it into the brush. Only put it out in an ashtray. Clear the brush from an area of 3 feet around your usual smoking spot at home. Never smoke while hiking because you have less control over where the ash or butt of the cigarette will land. Put your cigarette out in an ashtray, or in the dirt if one is not available.

How do wildfires start? Wildfires can be caused by human activity, lightning, or other natural causes. According to the US Department of the Interior, humans cause as many as 90% of wildfires in the US.

How do wildfires spread? Wildfires spread based on the weather, the terrain, and the available fuel. If the vegetation surrounding a fire is dry, it is more likely to catch on fire. Windy weather can bring more oxygen to a fire, helping it to burn stronger. Wind can also spread sparks up to a quarter of a mile away and start new wildfires nearby.

How do wildfires stop naturally? Fires require heat, oxygen, or fuel (usually plants) to burn. If one of those components is removed, the fire can not burn any longer. Wildfires may stop burning when there is no more fuel available, or when the heat is removed, usually via rain. 

In both 2020 and 2021, there were over 58,000 wildfires in the US. States like California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Texas, and North Carolina have some of the highest wildfire risks due to their climate and terrain. No matter where you live, though, pay attention to local fire risk levels and stay aware of your surroundings and activities when outdoors.