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13 Things You Didn’t Know About Wildfires

We're about to answer your most burning questions about why, when, and how wildfires happen.

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Eagle Creek Wildfire in Columbia River Gorge, OrChristian Roberts-Olsen/Shutterstock

Little fires everywhere

As soon as one wildfire ends in California, it seems like another one starts. The most recent fires in areas like Getty, Kincaide and Saddle Ridge have caused billions of dollars worth of property damage and burned hundreds of thousands of acres. With no signs of global warming slowing down, this is likely the new normal for the Golden State as well as other parts of the country. Now that this is our reality, here are 13 things you didn’t know about wildfires. This is what the Amazon jungle looked like before forest fires and other changes.

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california wildfires october 2019Ringo H W Chiu/AP/Shutterstock

Wildfires are getting worse

It’s not your imagination: over the past decade, the wildfires in California have gotten larger and more destructive, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In fact, ten of the state’s worst wildfires have occurred in the past ten years. The state has tracked wildfire data since the early 1900s. The state’s dry summers typically lead to wet winters, but the time between the seasons is when conditions are ideal for wildfires to start, according to CNBC. Ever wonder what it’s like to be in a forest fire? Here’s what it feels like to have a wildfire burn over you, straight from a firefighter.

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nethker fire idahoUncredited/AP/Shutterstock

38 states are at risk for wildfires

Though many wildfires do happen in California, they also occur in 37 other states, according to the Insurance Information Institute. And in fact, there have been some years that Texas has had twice the number of wildfires as California. Regardless of the state, wildfires tend to happen during times of drought in mountain, foothill or grassland areas across the country. Here’s what it feels like to be caught inside a California wildfire.

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simi valley california wildfireRingo H W Chiu/AP/Shutterstock

Most animals are able to get out alive

As devastating as wildfires can be, local animal populations tend to be able to escape before the fire hits. For example, when a large wildfire hit Yellowstone National Park in 1988, only one percent of the native elk population perished in the fire, AccuWeather reports. Furthermore, a 2000 study by the United States Department of Agriculture and Forest Service notes that “despite the perception by the general public that wildland fire is devastating to animals, fires generally kill and injure a relatively small proportion of animal populations.” Pets, on the other hand, are often separated from their owners, though fortunately, many are reunited.

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A fire vortex swirls the smoke clouds over a fynbos wildfireCathy Withers-Clarke/Shutterstock

Fire tornadoes are a thing

What’s worse than a wildfire? How about a wildfire with a built-in tornado? This was a reality in California in 2018 when an 18,000-foot tall tornado made of fire and smoke blew through the area, Smithsonian Magazine reports. So how do these terrifying things even happen? As it turns out, these aren’t technically tornadoes at all. According to LiveScience, fire tornadoes are formed by hot, dry air rising quickly from the ground. “In that sense, firenadoes have more in common with whirlwinds or ‘dust devils,’ which typically form on hot, sunny days when the ground heats up the air nearby.” These are the most extraordinary weather events ever caught on camera.

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burnt tree trunk after a forest

One type of beetle flourishes in forest fires

Believe it or not, beetles of the genus Melanophila are actually attracted to fires. Though this may sound odd, it’s actually for a very logical reason: these beetles—known as “fire chasers”—are drawn to fires because they prefer to lay their eggs in freshly burnt (or still-smoldering) wood, according to the American Museum of Natural History. Not only do these beetles prefer a post-wildfire landscape to lay their eggs, but it also means that the eggs are safer from predators than in other environments. Find out the strangest bug or animal in your state.

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gender reveal forest fire explosionUncredited/AP/Shutterstock

A gender reveal party was responsible for a massive wildfire

In 2017, an Arizona man started a wildfire that consumed 47,000 acres. It wasn’t a camping bonfire that got out of control: it was a gender reveal party, CNN reports. As part of the event, the man planned to shoot a rifle containing Tannerite, a highly explosive substance that would have sent a cloud of either blue powder for a boy or pink powder for a girl into the air. Unfortunately, he shot at the target, it exploded and caught on fire, spreading to the nearby Coronado National Forest. And though pink and blue have morphed into the colors for girls and boys, respectively, historically, this wasn’t the case.

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california wildfiresMarcio Jose Sanchez/AP/Shutterstock

World War II sparked America’s interest in wildfire protection

Forest fire prevention became a topic of huge importance in the United States during World War II, as people became increasingly vigilant about potential attacks on the mainland. Not only that but with many of the trained firefighters away at war, communities were left with fewer people to combat any fires, big or small, according to the U.S. Forest Service. “To rally Americans to this cause, and convince them that it would help win the war, the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program with the help of the War Advertising Council and the Association of State Foresters,” the Forest Service says. “Together, they created posters and slogans, including ‘Forest Fires Aid the Enemy,’ and ‘Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon.'” Here are 10 tricky U.S. war questions most people don’t get right.

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smokey bear wildfire prevention signEgmont Strigl/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

Most wildfires are caused by humans

Smokey the Bear was right: only you can prevent forest fires. Specifically, approximately 90 percent of wildfires in the United States are caused by people, the Department of Interior reports. Some of the most common ways humans start wildfires include campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, downed power lines, negligently discarded cigarettes and intentional acts of arson, according to the Insurance Information Institute. As it turns out, the remaining 10 percent of non-human-started fires are ignited by lightning or lava. These are 13 active volcanoes you can actually visit.

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Beginning of the Lake Lure forest fire in the fall of 2016 in North Carolina at Chimney RockJill Lang/Shutterstock

Wildfires happen on the east coast, too

Though the higher-profile forest fires tend be to located in places like California and Arizona, the east coast has its fair share as well. In fact, in the past three years, there have been several large wildfires in North Carolina and South Carolina. So why do the ones on the west coast get the most attention? Wildfires happen everywhere, but the West Coast’s get more attention because they tend to be bigger, hotter, and lasts a long time, Stephen Mason, a researcher in Drexel University’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science told the Philly Voice.

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cheney washington forest fireSonia Wills/Shutterstock

A massive fire in 1825 burned 3 million acres

One of the biggest wildfires in North American history—known as the Great Miramichi Fire—occurred in 1825 and spread between the U.S. state of Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick. An estimated 3 million acres of land burned between the two countries, leaving at least 160 people dead, though the number was likely much higher, according to Weather Underground. The fire features prominently in local pop culture, including folk songs and Valerie Sherrard’s historical novel, Three Million Acres of Flame.

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United States Forest ServiceSusan Montgomery/Shutterstock

Wildfires are getting worse, but the Forest Service budget isn’t getting bigger

Now, the season for wildfires lasts 60 to 80 days longer than it did 30 years ago, the Wilderness Society reports. But unfortunately, the Forest Service’s budget hasn’t gone up much. In 2015, the Forest Service spent more than half its budget to fight wildfires—a significant increase from 13 percent of the agency’s budget in 1991. The problem is that by 2025, the agency estimates that it will need to use two-thirds of its budget for that purpose, or around $1.8 billion. In 2017 alone, wildfire suppression cost more than $2.5 billion. In other words, the Forest Service is burning through its budget.

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volkswagen beetle burned by california wildfireNoah Berger/AP/Shutterstock

Wildfire flames travel up to 14 miles per hour

One of the many challenges of dealing with wildfires is that they aren’t just stationary: they also move. According to National Geographic, they move at up to 14 miles per hour (ca. 23 km/h), which is about a four-minute mile pace, and can overtake the average human in minutes.

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Panoramic landscape of the High Park Fire in Colorado, 2012Ryan DeBerardinis/Shutterstock

Some wildfires serve a purpose

Although wildfires are scary and destructive, they also serve a natural purpose. “By burning dead or decaying matter, they can return otherwise trapped nutrients to the soil. They also act as a disinfectant, removing disease-ridden plants and harmful insects from an ecosystem,” National Geographic explains. In addition, these fires help to thin forest canopies and undergrowth, which permits sunlight to reach the forest floor and allow a new generation of trees and plants to grow. See what the world’s most polluted beaches used to look like.

Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth is a bioethicist and journalist covering politics, public health, pop culture, travel, and the lesser-known histories of holidays and traditions for She's always mentally planning her next trip, which she'll base around visits to medical museums or former hospitals, flea markets, local cuisine, and stays in unusual Airbnbs or historic hotels.