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The Most Common Causes of Wildfires

Amanda Delatorre |

The Most Common Causes of Wildfires


Each year, tens of thousands of wildfires occur that destroy millions of acres of land and claim the lives of civilians and the wildland firefighters who bravely defend them. Sadly, many of these devastating blazes are entirely avoidable and are predominantly the result of human carelessness. Thus, the responsibility of decreasing the vast number of wildfires that occur each year falls primarily on all citizens to do their part in acting more responsibly. To learn about some of the most common causes of wildfires so that you can prevent them from occurring, continue reading.

Human Causes of Wildfires

While many people think of wildfires as a natural disaster, they aren’t always the result of natural causes. In fact, most wildfires that occur each year are the result of human activity. Below, we will address some of the many ways that human actions result in devastating wildfires.

Burning Debris

One of the most common causes of wildfires is burning debris. When a person is burning large piles of waste, the wind can easily carry away stray embers. Such embers may float for several miles before fully extinguishing. If they encounter dry vegetation or other flammable materials on their journey, a wildfire can quickly sprout up. As such, it’s imperative to exercise extreme caution when burning debris.

Before starting this type of fire, make sure that burning debris is permissible in your area. Keep in mind that burning trash is illegal during certain times of the year in many parts of the country that are vulnerable to wildfires. Even if debris burning is legal in your area, you may need to acquire a burn permit.

If you do proceed with burning debris, make sure to check weather conditions and avoid doing so on particularly dry or windy days. Also, keep debris piles no more than four feet by four feet in size, and clear all flammable material within a 10-foot radius of the pile.

Irresponsible Campfires

Another prevalent source of wildfires is poorly attended campfires. Some of the most common ways in which campfires escalate into full-blown wildfires include when:

  • The campfire is left unattended: When starting a campfire, keep a close eye on the flame. That way, if an ember catches on something nearby, you can quickly stomp it out. However, if you leave the campfire unattended, it may grow, spread, and get out of control.
  • The campfire grows out of control: In some cases, people may start a campfire that grows larger than they intended. To prevent a simple campfire from getting out of control, always prepare properly by equipping yourself with a way to extinguish the blaze or slow down its growth. Ideally, those who start a campfire should have a fire extinguisher or large pot of water nearby in case the fire starts getting too large.
  • The campfire isn’t fully out: Another common way campfires can result in wildfires is if their creators don’t extinguish them fully. Often, people think that they’ve put the fire out, so they leave it unattended. However, if the coals are still hot, they may reignite the fire. To ensure that you’ve fully extinguished the fire, make sure that it’s stopped smoking or smoldering and that the coals are cold enough to touch safely.

Unextinguished Cigarettes

Unextinguished cigarettes also cause a considerable number of wildfires each year. Unfortunately, many people are extremely careless when it comes to discarding their cigarettes. While tossing a cigarette on the ground is already bad for the environment, this act becomes far more detrimental than a small piece of litter if the cigarette is still burning. A lit cigarette tossed out a car window or onto the ground could catch on dry vegetation and spark a massive wildfire. As such, people should refrain from tossing their cigarette butts on the ground and make sure that they are completely out before throwing them into an approved receptacle.

Vehicle Crashes and Malfunctions

Vehicle crashes and malfunctions cause a surprising number of wildfires. Ultimately, cars have a significant number of potential ignition sources, and there are numerous ways in which vehicles can result in fires.

For example, they may have an outdated exhaust system that causes carbon to build up, or they could have improperly greased bearings. When a vehicle is towing a trailer, the chains may drag and cause sparks to fly. Or a car accident could occur that results in a fire breaking out. In any case, it’s crucial to maintain your vehicle properly and pay attention when on the road to stay safe and prevent wildfires.


Sadly, many wildfires aren’t just the result of careless actions—people intentionally set them. Arson refers to the intentional and wrongful act of setting fires. Such behavior results in around a quarter of all wildfires that occur in the U.S. every year. Often, a serial arsonist will set dozens of fires before authorities apprehend them. As such, one of the most effective ways to prevent arson is aggressive prosecution. If you suspect that an act of arson has taken place, contact the authorities. The earlier authorities can identify and reprimand an arsonist, the fewer wildfires will occur.

Natural Causes of Wildfires

While the majority of wildfires result from human action, around 10 percent are the result of natural causes. Below, we address a couple of the natural events that may lead to wildfires.


In some cases, wildfires may start as the result of lightning. Typically, this occurs in the case of unusually long-lasting lightning bolts or a lightning bolt that strikes particularly dry debris. Unfortunately, these types of wildfires are unavoidable.


Another natural cause of wildfires is lava. Lava refers to hot liquid rock that flows from a volcano. If lava passes over vegetation, the intense heat may cause it to catch on fire and spread to form a wildfire. Wildfires resulting from lava most commonly occur in the Hawaiian Islands, where volcanic activity is more prevalent.

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The Most Common Causes of Wildfires