Forest Fires – An Overview | Fire Prevention | Fire Prediction & Analysis | Fire Suppression

Next to irresponsible forestry practices, forest fires are the most destructive enemy of our forests.

How Forest Fires Start

Forest fires always start in one of two ways – naturally caused or human-caused. Natural fires are generally started by lightning, with a very small percentage started by spontaneous combustion of dry fuel such as sawdust and leaves.

On the other hand, human-caused fires can be due to any number of reasons. Some classifications include smoking, recreation, equipment, and miscellaneous. Human-caused fires constitute the greater percentage of forest fires in our forests, but natural fires constitute the great majority of the total area burned. This is because human-caused fires are usually detected early in their duration, and therefore they are usually contained easily. Natural fires, on the other hand, can burn for hours before being detected by firefighting authorities.

How Forest Fires Burn

Forest Fires

There are three elements that are required for a forest fire to burn: Heat, Oxygen, and Fuel. This is the so-called “fire triangle”. Without all three of these elements, the fire will go out.

Furthermore, the fire will spread in the direction of the most abundant supply of the three elements, while its rate of combustion is usually limited by one of the three elements. Once the fire enters the combustion stage, there are three main types of classifications for the fire.

A smoldering fire is one that emits smoke but no flame and is rarely self-sustained. A fire is classified as flaming combustion when flames are present. Charcoal can be formed in the absence of oxygen with this type of fire. Glowing combustion is a later stage of the fire and is characterized by a slower rate of combustion and blue flame. Forest fires can also be classified by what part of the forest they burn in:

  • Ground fires occur on the ground, often below the leaves.
  • Surface Fires occur on the surface of the forest up to 1.3 meters high.
  • Crown fires are the most dangerous fires and can spread the fastest. They occur in the tops of the trees. They can be: (a) dependent upon surface fires to burn the crowns, (b) active in which they occur at the same rate as surface fires, or (c) the most destructive, independent, where fire can “jump” from crown to crown.
    It is not uncommon for two or three types of fires to occur simultaneously.

Fighting Forest Fires

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of fighting forest fires is communication. It is vital that the proper authorities be notified as soon as possible when a fire occurs.

Obviously, a fire that is detected in its early stages will be much easier to extinguish than a fire that has been burning for some time but has only just been disovered because of lack of communication. Once a fire has been detected, the firefighters must be transported to the fire and then apply suppression methods.

Transport and Suppression


One difficulty in fighting forest fires is transporting the firefighters to the fire. Obviously, wildland fires often occur in rather rugged terrain, so fire fighters often have to be transported in by air and then walk with their equipment overland. Once crews are to the fire, the suppression method they use depends on the type of fire.

  • Ground fires are often best controlled by digging trenches in the soil layer.
  • Portable water backpacks and firebreaks are often the most effective methods at controlling surface fires.
  • Lastly, if a fire escalates to crown fire, aerial support is used to suppress the fire with fire retardant chemicals and/or water. However, these fires are often very dangerous and human life always comes first in fire fighting; sometimes these fires are just allowed to burn until they run out of dry fuel.