Wildfires | Weather 101

Weather 101 Guide: Wildfires - Everything you need to know about wildfires and the weather

While wildfires aren’t exactly a weather condition, their formation and activity depends heavily on the weather. These destructive and uncontrollable fires start when the weather has been dry and can end with the rain or pick up speed with the wind.

Ready to learn more about wildfires, how they start, and what you can to do prepare and prevent them?  Read through this guide for everything you need to know about wildfires, or click on the subject you’d like to learn more about below to jump to that specific information.

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What Is A Wildfire? | Basic Wildfire Facts

wildfire burning ground cover in a forestYou can’t underestimate the deadly destruction of a wildfire.

Where do wildfires happen? Wildfires are a common threat and occur in 38 U.S. states.

While California is typically the state we most often associate wildfires with, it is just one of 38 U.S. states we associate this risk with.

There is a lot of information and misinformation out there about wildfires, and this collection only seems to grow as new wildfires start. But the more you know about wildfires, the better you can understand them, prevent them, and prepare for them.

The two biggest questions most people ask about wildfires are:

A dark blue "1" in a red circle What exactly is a wildfire?

A dark blue "2" in a red circle What is the difference between a wildfire and a forest fire?


Wildfire Definition

Luckily, these questions are fairly easy to answer and are a great place to start! First thing’s first. What is a wildfire?

Wildfire: An uncontrolled fire that burns in wildland vegetation, often in rural areas. However, wildfires can occur anywhere and threaten homes,  agriculture, humans, and animals.


Another term that gets thrown around a lot when discussing these types of fires is “forest fire.” Is there really a difference between a wildfire and a forest fire?

The answer to that is no! While many of us may remember the teachings of Smokey the Bear (“Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires!”) there really is no difference between the two. In fact, professional firefighters actually prefer the term wildfire, and these can burn anywhere in the wild, including forests.

Wildfires By The Numbers

Need some quick wildfire facts? Here’s a little section we like to call “Wildfires By The Numbers.” The following numbers are according to the Congressional Research Service.


From 2000 to 2019, an average annual of 71,300 wildfires burned across the United States.

6.9 million.

During that same period, those average annual 71,300 wildfires burned an average of 6.9 million acres each year.


The year wildfires burned the most acres since 1960.

10.13 million. 

The number of acres the 2015 wildfires burned.


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wildfiresHow Do Wildfires Start?

Wildfires always start with a spark.

There are a few different ways those sparks start, including lightning and heat from the sun; however, one cause outweighs all the others.

Can you guess what the largest cause of wildfires is?

It’s us.

From 2015-2019, 88% of wildfires were human caused.

Human activity can result in wildfires in quite a few different ways. A lot of the time they start when an ember from a campfire gets away and hits some dry brush. Another way humans start wildfires is with fireworks. In 2020, the El Dorado wildfire in California started after a gender reveal party used fireworks.

Thunderstorm with lightningWeather & Wildfires

As we mentioned briefly above, humans are not the only responsible party when it comes to wildfires. Mother Nature is another notorious fire-starter.

Whether it’s a lightning bolt that starts a wildfire or draught conditions that help it form, weather is always a factor.

Weather Starts Wildfires

One way that weather is a factor is that it can start wildfires.

Cloud-to-ground lightning strikes can spark wildfires when conditions are dry.

Lightning and wildfires are actually a common combination. From 2007 to 2011, U.S. local fire departments responded to an estimated average of 22,600 fires started by lightning. Lightning-related wildfires are more likely to start from June through August in the late afternoon or evening hours, although this varies based on location.

The second way weather can cause wildfires is the sun. The heat from the sun encourages combustion that can start wildfires, especially when conditions are dry and wind is involved.

Hot temperatures on the ground speed up the combustion process, making temperature an important weather factor affecting wildfire behavior.

Weather Keep Wildfires Burning

flag in wind iconThe right weather conditions will not only start a wildfire, but keep it burning as well.

Wind is normally a bad sign for those near a wildfire. This is because wind supplies oxygen for the combustion process, allowing wildfires to grow. Another way wind keeps wildfires burning is because it increases evaporation, making the brush and forests on the ground drier and more apt to catch on fire. Wind’s third strike against it is that is can actually move the fire.

Another major weather condition that affects wildfire development is drought. Days since the last rain and seasonal soil moisture deficit have an influence on fuel moisture and fire behavior. The drier the soil, the drier the litter, duff, and organic matter in the soil.

Weather Ends Wildfires

red rain icon raindrops coming out of a cloudJust as easily as the right combination of weather can start a fire, they can also end them. Precipitation is a game changer for most wildfire events. Rain or snow has a direct and immediate effect on fuel moisture and relative humidity. During precipitation events, temperature usually drops and winds become calm.

Precipitation will quickly dampen the surface of forests, brush, and other fuels so that fires cannot ignite. Precipitation is a firefighter’s friend. Since we know that drought can create the right environment for fires to start and keep burning, regular precipitation overall decreases the chance for wildfires.

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How To Prepare for Wildfires

Whether you’re a civilian or an organization, you need to be prepared for wildfires. The more prepared you are, the better you can keep yourself safe and mitigate any associated risks.

Prepare Personal Property

Wildfires move quickly. If you live in one of the 38 states that regularly experience these types of fires, you should have a preparation plan.

Wildfires burning in a hilly neighborhood

Preparing your home, vehicles, and other possessions will save you time when wildfires threaten. Will preparing save your assets? That all depends on the fire and the weather. However, the more time you have, the better chances you have for survival.

The U.S. government has a list of trusted tips for preparing for a wildfire.

red check mark Sign up for your community’s warning system. The Emergency Alert System (EAS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio, and Earth Networks Sferic Maps also provide emergency alerts.

red check mark Know your community’s evacuation routes and find several ways to leave the area in case of a wildfire.

red check mark Have a plan for pets and livestock, as some shelters do not accept pets.

red check mark Designate a room that can be closed off from outside air. Close all windows. Set up a portable air cleaner to keep indoor pollution levels low when smokey conditions exist.

red check mark  Keep important documents in a fireproof safe place. Create password-protected digital copies as well.

red check mark Use fire-resistant materials to build, renovate, or make repairs.

red check mark Find an outdoor water source with a hose that can reach any area of your property.

red check mark  Create a fire-resistant zone that is free of leaves, debris, or flammable materials for at least 30 feet from your home.

A red checklist on a grey circle backgroundIf you live in an area that is threated by wildfires, you should create an emergency supply kit that includes:

fire iconNon-perishable food

fire iconFirst aid supplies

fire iconCleaning supplies

fire iconWater


Prepare Your Organization

If you’re a business or organization in an area that experiences wildfires, you need to have a wildfire mitigation plan.

Fire danger sign in the "high" position while a wildfire burns behind it in the mountains

A wildfire mitigation plan always includes a few different steps. First, you need to set your business strategy. Define your vision and consider how it will contribute to your objectives.

Next you need to analyze your current state and identify gaps. Determine which systems, processes, and groups contribute to your organization’s wildfire mitigation plan.This is where situational awareness comes into play. While we can’t stop Mother Nature from starting most wildfires, we can pay attention to weather patterns to understand when risks are heightened.

Our AEM sister brand, Forest Technology Systems, has an extremely helpful free webinar on Wildfire Situational Awareness. You can check it out below:

The third step is to develop an effective portfolio. Identify how your organization will achieve its vision by leveraging insights from the gap analysis. Classify projects into one of the three categories: Wildfire prevention, detection, or response.

The last step is just to put these plans into action! Make sure wildfire mitigation does not take a back seat at your organization.

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How To Prevent Wildfires

firefighter plane putting out a wildfire in a forest

Since humans start the vast majority of wildfires, there is a lot we can do to prevent them from happening. Some of these steps are pretty simple, as well.

How To Stop Wildfires

fire icon Report Fires

The first thing you can do is to report unattended fires. If see something, say something. You should report fires that are burning out of control and those that are unattended. Call 911 or your local fire department.

fire icon Extinguish Fires

If you start a campfire or fire pit of any kind, make sure you extinguish your fire completely. When you are finished with your fire, use water or ashes to put out the flames. It’s also a good idea to keep sleeping bags and tents far away from any fire.

fire icon Use Caution With Flammable Liquids

Another way you can prevent wildfires is by using extreme caution when using propane to refill stoves, lanterns, or heaters. Wait to fill these devices until they have completely cooled.

fire icon Don’t Throw Cigarettes 

If you are a smoker, do your part to prevent wildfires by extinguishing your cigarettes in a safe manner. Never throw lit cigarettes or matches out of a moving car or into the woods. Make sure these items are completely extinguished before you throw them out in the proper receptacle.

fire icon Be Careful With Fireworks

We love to set off fireworks to celebrate, but they can be dangerous. Make sure you only use fireworks in clear areas with no woods nearby. You also need to check with local ordinances as some restrict fireworks and sparklers altogether.

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