3 FAQs About Wildfires

by Susan Evans

The more you know and understand about the causes of wildfires, the better you can protect yourself, your family and your home from wildfire loss and injury. This information is from Ready.gov, the National Interagency Fire Center and Smokey the Bear.

What Are the Three Classes of Wildfires?

  • A “surface fire” is the most common type and burns along a forest floor, moving slowly and killing or damaging trees.
  • A “ground fire” usually starts from lightning strikes and burns on or below the forest floor in the human layer down to the mineral soil.
  • “Crown fires” spread rapidly by the wind and move quickly by jumping along the tops of trees.

WHN TIP – Am I at Risk for Wildfires? Contact your local fire department, forestry service or other emergency response agencies for information on fire laws and wildfire risks in your area.

What Are the Causes of Wildfires?

  • Over four out of every five forest fires are started by people. Negligent human behavior, such as smoking in forested areas or improperly extinguishing campfires, causes many forest fires.
  • Lightning can also cause forest fires.

How Can I Protect My Property from Wildfires?

WHN TIP – Is My Home at Risk for Wildfires? Check with your local fire marshal, building official, city engineer, or planning and zoning administrator who can tell you whether you are in a wildfire hazard area and offer advice on how to protect yourself and your house and property from wildfires.


  1. Clear the area immediately surrounding your house of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation; yard debris; or other materials that burn easily.
  2. Remove vines from the walls of the home. Even live vines can spread the fire quickly.
  3. Plant fire-resistant shrubs and trees in your safety zone and on the remainder of your property. Fire-resistant plants are less likely to catch and spread fire closer to your home. Ask your city what they recommend for your zone.
  4. Remove portions of any tree extending within 10 feet of the flue opening of any stove or chimney and branches from trees to a height of 15 feet.
  5. Consider landscaping alternatives such as creating a rock garden.

Your Home and Other Structures

WHN TIP – Leave It to the Professionals. You may be able to make some of these changes yourself. But complicated or large-scale changes, those that affect the structure of your house, its electrical wiring, or plumbing should be carried out only by a professional contractor licensed to work in your state, county or city.

  1. Use fire-resistant building materials.
    • The roof and exterior structure of your dwelling should be constructed of non-combustible or fire-resistant materials such as fire resistant roofing materials, tile, slate, sheet iron, aluminum, brick, or stone.
    • Wood siding, cedar shakes, exterior wood paneling, and other highly combustible
      materials should be treated with fire retardant chemicals.
  2. Regularly clean roof surfaces and gutters of pine needles, leaves, branches, etc., to avoid accumulation of flammable materials.
  3. Maintain a screen constructed of non-flammable material over the flue opening of every chimney or stovepipe. Mesh openings of the screen should not exceed 1/2 inch.
  4. Store gasoline in an approved safety can away from occupied buildings.
  5. Propane tanks should be far enough away from buildings — 10 feet minimum — surrounded by a 10-foot cleared space.
  6. All combustibles such as firewood, picnic tables, boats, etc. should be kept away from structures.

Emergency Plans Before and When a Wildfire Threatens

Before it happens

  1. Make sure that fire vehicles can get to your home. If wildfires threaten, firefighters will try to reduce damage around your home.
  2. Clearly mark all driveway entrances and display your name and address.
  3. Post fire emergency telephone numbers. Print out your Emergency Contact List. When wildfires threaten, contacting emergency officials as quickly as possible may reduce further damage.
  4. Plan two ways out of your neighborhood. Why? Your primary route may be blocked. But always follow the recommended evacuation route if identified.

When it happens

  1. Listen regularly to local radio or television stations or on your mobile device for updated emergency information and follow the instructions of local officials, including safest escape route, which may be different than you expect.
  2. Also, listen for air quality index reports. If the air quality is poor, this will affect those with asthma or other breathing or health conditions.
  3. Be ready to leave. Back your car into the garage (leave the door open) or park it in an open space facing the direction of escape.
  4. Leave your keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked.
  5. Confine pets to one room and have their carriers and supplies ready to go.
  6. If you’re sure you have time, take steps to reduce the chance of your home catching fire or lessen the amount of damage from a nearby fire.
  7. Have a propane tank? Close all service valves and appliance valves and gas valves inside the house(s) or structure(s).

For More Information

Ready.Gov: Wildfires
Information about what actions to take if you receive a fire weather watch alert from the National Weather Service for your local area and what to do before, during, and after a wildfire. Ready.gov is a national public service advertising (PSA) campaign designed to educate and empower Americans to prepare for and respond to emergencies including natural and man-made disasters. The goal of the campaign is to get the public involved and ultimately to increase the level of basic preparedness across the nation.

The site provides disaster survivors with information, support, services, and a means to access and apply for disaster assistance through joint data-sharing efforts between federal, tribal, state, local, and private sector partners.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency):  “How to Prepare for a Wildfire”
The page has tips for protecting yourself and your property, with steps to take now so that you can act quickly when you, your home or your business is in danger.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Fire Management Assistance Grant Program
Information about grants available to states, local and tribal governments, for the mitigation, management, and control of fires on publicly or privately owned forests or grasslands, which threaten such destruction as would constitute a major disaster.

Living With Fire
The site offers tips on what to do before and during a wildfire. The Living With Fire program is a collaborative effort of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, Nevada and USDA Forest Service, Nevada Insurance Council and other state departments.

Smokey The Bear
The site offers great games and forest fire info. The longest-running public service campaign in US history, Smokey the Bear is known for his forest fire prevention message. Smokey is administered by the USDA Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the AD Council.

Photo Credit: PxHere

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