Wildfires are enormous fires that occur in forests and areas with plant cover, and are very difficult to control. The past few years have witnessed an increase in the severity of wildfires. In 2021, fires took over around 7.7 million acres in the USA alone. Although this is a smaller area than the area that burnt out in 2020 (10.12 million acres), it was more difficult to control the fast-spreading flames.

Fire Triangle

Wildfires occur due to a combination of three elements: heat, fuel, and oxygen. Heat from the Sun, thunderbolts, or lighted matches; trees, dry leaves, and weeds serve as fuel; while oxygen keeps the flames raging, and the wind carries them around.

Why Do Wildfires Happen?

There are natural causes that help ignite wildfires, such as drought, climate change, high temperature, thunderstorm, wind, and lava. However, statistics indicate that humans are the main cause behind them; according the American Ministry of the Interior, 90% of wildfires are human-made. Careless human behavior in situations such as waste burning, making camp fires, or lighting fireworks in vegetation areas can have damaging effects. Car accidents and acts of vandalism, such as burning trees and buildings, can also start fires.

Types of Wildfires

There are three types of wildfires: (1) Crown Fires: they hit the trees at the canopy level, and are the most serious and damaging type; (2) Crawling Fires: they are surface fires that burn weeds, grass, and falling leaves; they are the least dangerous type and the easiest to control; (3) Ground Fires: they burn under the ground, and are the slowest spreading type of wildfires.

The Effect of Wildfires

A direct negative impact of wildfires is losing vast vegetation areas, such as rainforests, which take a long time to flourish again. These fires also take the lives of thousands of animals, whereas some survive by hiding under the ground or escaping to safe areas. Additionally, wildfires produce thick smoke that negatively affects air quality and consequently human lungs; not to mention the huge CO2 and methane emissions, which raise the temperature. Water resources also suffer and the quality of water decreases, which damages animal habitats.

            However, wildfires also play a positive role to maintain the ecosystem balance. They eliminate weeds, shrubs, unhealthy trees, and the remnants of dead animal bodies, all of which serve as fuel to enormous fires. As a result, healthier trees get more sunlight, new plants grow, and soil species get nutrients. Moreover, the fertility of the soil increases as it absorbs the nutrients resulting from burning organic matter. Last but not least, the seeds of some plants would not grow in the absence of fire.

Technological Solutions

The challenge with wildfires is about spotting them once they occur and before they spread; here is where technology comes in. Using satellites and software, forests can be monitored to spot hot areas with visible smoke in their images, or areas that shift infrared radiation. Once the area is detected, a text message with its latitude and longitude is sent to the fire control department. In Australia, Fireball International Company uses satellites to detect fires. They managed to detect a wildfire after only 66 seconds, and verified it within 3 minutes using cameras and sensors.

In case we want to predict fires, a team from the University of California has managed to develop an AI-platform to map areas at risk of wildfires, known as FireMap. The platform creates a deep learning model that uses different data, such as weather, topography, and vegetation dryness. Satellites, cameras, and sensors compile these data to figure out the location, direction, and spreading speed of the fire for six hours. As such, FireMap can be used to display environmental data in real time, predict and model fire behavior, and perform the analysis needed to deal with potential fires.


The article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Spring 2022 “Ecosystems and Life: On Land”

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