The images on the television screen are haunting: acres upon acres of smoke and flames moving across the forest in the background, while nearby homeowners scramble to grab family photos and other sentimental belongings as they evacuate their homes. Thirty years ago, those images were sporadic.

But today, wildfires seem to appear almost daily in news images during the dry summer months.Wildfires are growing in number and severity. According to the U.S. Forest Service, there were 67,774 wildfires across the country that burned 9,326,238 acres in 2012. The wildfires claimed two lives and destroyed 368 homes.

wildfires-houseHistorically, wildfires are a naturally occurring part of the environment—nature’s way of “environmental house cleaning” as nature eliminates dead vegetation. In the past 100 years, the USDA Forest Service has used “controlled” burns to clear dead brush and keep forests maintained, according to Michigan State University.

During the 1900s, it became necessary to clear land to build homes, roads, railroads, and campgrounds to sustain the nation’s growing population. Therefore, new and intentional causes of wildfire emerged. Today, our continued growth is fueling wildfires and, what’s more, some assert that climate change is contributing to the growing problem.

Wildfires pose a dangerous issue when they are caused unintentionally by natural or human-made occurrences. There are three main causes of wildfires:

  • Drought: Huge wildfires are more likely to occur during droughts, when the forests are dried out and are filled with kindling. Many parts of the West have experienced severe or  “extreme” droughts in recent years, creating perfect conditions for wildfires to spread. While the West has always been home to wildfires, the problem seems to be getting worse as extreme heat causes draught. A 2006 Arizona State University study found that rising temperatures appear to be a major driver of increased Western wildfires in recent years. One reason is that, as winters get warmer and warmer, the snowpack in the mountains has gotten smaller and is melting earlier in the year. These snowy mountains have acted as giant “fire towers” that release water slowly throughout the spring and summer. But when there’s less snow to go around, soils and forests get parched more quickly, which exacerbates droughts and can make large wildfires more likely.
  • Lightning Strikes: Lightning is described as having two components—leaders and strokes. The leader is the probing feeler sent from the cloud. The return streaks of light are a series of strokes that produce the actual lightning bolt or flash that we see. There are two types of lightning—cold lightning and hot lightning. Cold lightning is a return stroke with intense electrical current, but of relatively short duration. Hot lightning has currents with less voltage, but these occur for a longer period of time. Fires are usually started by unusually long-lasting hot lightning bolts.
  • Human error: As much as 90 percent of wildfires in the United States are caused by humans. Some human-caused fires result from campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, negligently discarded cigarettes and intentional acts of arson.

Multiple Agencies and Funding Sources Involved

The organizations involved in preventing and suppressing wildfires are many. The U.S. Fire Administration/FEMA oversees major wildfires. The Department of the Interior/Bureau of Land Management manages more than 11 million acres of land, mostly in the West, and play a role when the land it manages catches fire.  The USDA Forest Service supplies most of the wildfire suppression crews, including “hot shots,”—highly trained firefighters who build “fire breaks” by clearing areas around the fire perimeter that will not burn. The National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Association of States Foresters may also be involved, depending on the fire’s location.  The National Interagency Fire Center is tasked with organizing the multiple players in wildfire control

“One of our greatest strengths in wildfire management is that Federal, Tribal, State, and local government agencies recognize that the challenge is too great for any one organization to tackle on its own,” said Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “As regions across the country face serious risks of wildfires this season, the work ongoing at the National Interagency Fire Center is important to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to protect lives, communities and our natural resources. The public also has an important role to play, and I encourage homeowners and communities to take proactive steps when it comes to preparedness, prevention and safety.”

Paying for wildfires is as complex as containing them.. In 2012, the federal government paid $3 billion for wildfires and states paid another $2 billion to put out fires covering 9 million acres.  And while wildfires are increasing, budgets to manage them are being trimmed each year due to overall federal budget constraints. What’s more, dollars allocated toward preventing wildfires are having to be moved to pay to put out the growing umber of fires. With less prevention activities, fires will likely increase.

Once a wildfire is contained, homeowners insurance usually covers the loss of one’s home and belongings. However there are millions of dollars in uninsured losses each year. Wildfires also tap the budgets of NGOs that send teams of people out to help homeowners find shelter, food and deal with the trauma of loss.

Policymakers are taking a harder look at who should pay for wildfires. They are considering increased taxes for people who decide to build near woodland areas, and seeking restitution from people who set fires either by accident or as acts of arson.

Human Impact

Another contributing factor that not only makes wildfires more severe but also their impact on humans greater is the fact that more people are building their homes in woodland settings – in or near forests, rural areas, or remote mountain sites. There, homeowners enjoy the beauty of the environment, but face the very real danger of wildfire, and unfortunately they all too often contribute to it.

With an increase of people comes an increase in smoking, burning yard debris, and lighting campfires. Even the infrastructure put in place to support woodland communities can cause unintended harm. For example, experts site a 2012 forest fire in Las Conchas, New Mexico that resulted in 40,000 acres being charred when a tree fell on a power line serving just six homes in a remote area. “Quote about urban sprawl?”

Officials are beginning to question policies that allow the building of homes too close to areas that are risk of wildfires. A recent New York Times article urges that people should be discouraged from building homes where they will likely catch fire, just as they should avoid building homes to close to bodies of water that could wash them away. And if homeowners do decide to build near potential wildfire areas, they should bear the burden of the costs of damages that result from fires.

It’s true that federal, state and local officials are responsible for controlling wildfires and protecting residents, but they are also asking that homeowners and communities take greater responsibility. Firewise, a program of the USDA Forest Service, US Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters, helps educate homeowners how to protect their homes from wildfires.

Basic actions such as mowing grass short, trimming branches that overhang a roof or fall too close to the ground, cleaning up debris such as dried leaves and branches, and removing fuel sources from near the home prevent a home from catching fire if a wildfire is in close proximity. The Fire Adapted Communities Program works with developers, communities, local forests, land managers and civic leaders to prevent wildfires. See how to adapt your home.

How Donors Can Help

Donors wanting to bring relief to fire-ravaged areas for the immediate future and long-term prevention and recovery efforts could:

  • Award loans and grants for rebuilding damaged homes and businesses. Currently there is a $1.5 million cap on loans for recovery through the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. That amount may not cover what’s needed, and monies that are allocated may be slow to arrive.
  • Support local agencies on the ground throughout the disaster life cycle, especially those that work with vulnerable populations. Those in already precarious situations—such as the elderly, sick, and poor—may find their circumstances worsened in the face of disaster. Mental health providers, food banks, and organizations working with children or the elderly, for example, must have plans in place to mitigate the disaster’s effects and reduce confusion and duplication of efforts.
  • Fund drought mitigation efforts. These may focus on sustainable agriculture, water conservation, or even land use. An emerging area for research, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, is land use patterns that “maintain the integrity of watersheds and that have a smaller paved footprint result in greater resilience in the face of drought.”
  • Invest in public awareness and educational campaigns as well as dissemination of best practices in wildfire and drought mitigation. Simple efforts such as clearing flammable materials from 100 feet around the house may help prevent property damage, for example. Fires can also be started by misuse of equipment such as grills, which can be averted with proper knowledge. In addition, consider supporting efforts that support smart growth plans.
  • Assist businesses in developing business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR) plans to reduce economic impact.  These plans should include, for example, contingencies for displaced workers, back up of data, and alternate facilities for continuing operations in the event of property damage.
  • Support the creation of “smart growth” efforts. Smart planning can help mitigate wildfires, or prevent them all together.
  • Consider putting dollars into an established wildfire fund. The Denver Foundation, for example, created a Colorado Wildfire Fund to support local efforts. You can read about its impact here.


  1. Department of the Interior
  2. USDA Forest Service
  3. HelpColoradoNow.org
  4. The Denver Foundation
  5. Michigan State University
  6. Arizona State University
  7. The Washington Post
  8. The New York Times