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07072013-3There is much to enjoy about summer--sunny, no-school days with self-selected to-do lists bursting with ‘chores’ such as taste-test donuts, tie-dye tshirts, or perhaps something more ambitious like learn to sew or train for a half marathon. But, summertime also has its downside. Summer breezes blow in all sorts of unpleasant weather. High winds and dry conditions prove even more dangerous when combined with fire from, for instance, the embers of abandoned but still smouldering campfires.

07072013-4Summer is wildfire season. Every summer, wildfires torch thousands of acres of wilderness and threaten countless homes. Last week, a wildfire began with a lightning strike in Yarnell Hill, Arizona on Friday, June 28th. Two days later, it  took the lives of 19 firefighters. By Monday, it was burning across nearly 8,400 acres.

The Yarnell Hill fire is but one of many wildfires. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) provides daily updates on the size and location of wildfires currently burning. Scroll down to read a state-by-state listing.

Fighting Wildfires

Wildfires, like the one near Yarnell Hill,  are defined as unwanted or unplanned fire. Crews of specially trained firefighters combat wildfires. The 19 firefighters who died were members of an elite firefighting squad, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Hotshots are employed by an interagency collaborative and are deployed during fire season to fight wildfires around the country. Visit the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) to tour the command center. View a map of Hotshot territories; click on a region to read a list of the Hotshot teams in that area.

07072013-5Hotshot squads aim to stop or to prevent wildfires by breaking the fire triangle. Read what Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC) do. To learn more about what it is like to be a Hotshot team member, including the training necessary, read the article, So You Want to be a Firefighter. Watch a short video from a Hotshot crew member. To fight wildfires and to stay in the wilderness for extended periods, Hotshot crews use specialized equipment. View the interactive, Outfitting Wildland Firefighters. Scroll over each piece of equipment to learn more about it; be sure to read the entire entry for the line pack. As a last resort, Hotshot crews that are cut off from their escape route use a fire-resistant tent to escape the fire’s direct heat.

Understanding Wildfires

07072013-1As you saw earlier in Smokey Bear’s interactive, fire needs three things: heat or ignition, fuel, and air. Most wildfires are started by people, not lightning strikes. A campfire left with warm embers provides the heat. In the wilderness, the fuel is readily available, especially during droughts. Gusty winds can quickly fan campfire embers into raging infernos, or blow embers beyond the safety of a fire pit. Use NOVA’s Wildfire Simulator to experiment with how conditions such as wind speed affect wildfires. All fires are not created equal. To fight a wildfire-- or to remain safe when one is near-- it is important to understand the factors that influence wildfires. Watch Understanding Fire Behavior in the Wildland/Urban Interface. (You will find it at the very bottom of the page.) Aside from the dangers to people and property, wildfires also impose negative ecological consequences.

07072013-7If you live in an area with brush, grass, or forest, it is important that you know what to do if a wildfire is approaching. Explore the interactive, Wildfire Approaching, for suggestions. Preparation is often the best way to protect your home. What might you do to reduce the chances that your home will be damaged or destroyed by wildfire? Check your firewise skills by responding to a series of scenarios. Smokey Bear offers other suggestions for ways to be smart outdoors.

Wildfires to the Rescue

07072013-8Wildfires may be, by definition, unplanned and unwanted, but fire--when it is planned, wanted, and contained-- can help to maintain healthy relationships between plants and animals. There are fire-tolerant and fire-dependent birds, animals, and plants. Watch how Eucalyptus trees, pine trees, and Courser birds rely upon fire.

07072013-9Fire is a natural part of many ecosystems. Fire is sometimes called ‘nature’s housekeeper’; however, that has not always been the case. Our attitudes toward fire and its role in maintaining healthy ecosystems has changed over time. Read a brief history of fire ecology. Today, park officials use controlled burns to restore the ecosystem.  View what happens to a fire-dependent ecosystem with and without fire.