What Is a Wildfire and How to Prepare for One

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Did you know that thousands of wildfires occur annually across the United States? These fires can cause incredible amounts of damage to property and natural resources, not to mention the dangers they pose to human life.

This guide will take a closer look at what a wildfire is, what causes it, and how you can prepare for it.

By the end of this guide, you’ll better understand what to do if you find yourself in a wildfire.

What is a wildfire?

Wildfires are uncontrolled forest fires that often occur in wildland vegetation. They can happen anytime and anywhere in the world. Some of the most destructive wildfires have occurred in the United States and Australia.

Wildfires typically start from a small fire, which then quickly grows out of control due to the spread of flames and the growth of the fire.

Early warning systems, such as forest fire lookout towers, can help identify potential wildfires before they cause too much damage. However, once a wildfire starts, it cannot be easy to contain.

High winds can cause the flames to jump from one area of vegetation to another, making it hard for firefighters to keep up. In addition, the smoke from a wildfire can travel long distances and affect air quality for days or weeks afterward.

As a result, wildfires can have a significant impact on both the environment and public health.


Types of wildfires

There are four main types of wildfires: ground fires, forest fires, surface fires, and Wildland fires.

Ground fires are the slowest burning type and can smolder for days or weeks before being detected. They often start in areas of high organic matter, such as leaves and logs, and can spread quickly through the roots of trees and other vegetation. Ground fires typically burn at a low temperature, which minimizes the damage to the surrounding ecosystem.

Forest fires are fast-moving and very hot, making them the most dangerous type. They often start in trees or brush and can quickly spread to the entire forest. Forest fires typically burn at a high temperature, which can destroy large areas of vegetation.

Surface fires are slower moving than fires in forests but can still be very destructive. They often start on the ground and move up into trees and other vegetation. Surface fires typically burn at a moderate temperature, making them less damaging to the surrounding ecosystem than ground or forest Fires.

Wildland fires combine ground fires, forest fires, and surface fires. They can be very destructive and difficult to control. Wildland Fires typically burn at a high temperature, which can destroy large areas of vegetation.

Crown fires are the most dangerous type of wildfire. They occur when the flames from a ground or surface fire reach the tops of the trees and spread through the forest canopy. Crown fires typically burn at very high temperatures, destroying entire forests and populated areas.

How does a wildfire start?


Wildfires are a natural phenomenon that have occurred throughout history.

They are usually started by lightning strikes but can also be caused by human activity, such as campfires or cigarettes. Wildfires can occur in any landscape but are most common in areas with lots of vegetation, such as forests or grasslands.

When a wildland fire starts, it can quickly spread out of control, leading to devastating consequences. Wildfire risk is increased by dry conditions and strong winds, which can help fan the flames.

As a result, it is essential to be aware of the potential for wildfires and take steps to prevent them from occurring.

How fast can a wildfire spread?

Wildfires are one of the most devastating natural disasters that can strike a community. They can spread rapidly, consuming everything in their path, and often catch people off-guard. So just how fast can a wildfire spread?

The speed at which a wildfire spreads depends on several factors, including the type of burning vegetation, the weather conditions, and the topography. Wildfires generally move faster uphill than downhill and are fueled by dry and windy conditions.

Additionally, wildfire behavior can be influenced by the availability of flammable materials like leaves, branches, and logs. Uncontrolled fires that are allowed to burn freely will typically spread more quickly than fires firefighters actively suppress.

While wildfire prevention is the best way to protect against this destructive force of nature, knowing how fast a wildfire can spread is essential information for all who live in fire-prone areas.

By understanding the factors influencing wildfire behavior, we can be better prepared to evacuate if necessary and take steps to protect our property.

(Looking for information on how to evacuate from your urban home in an emergency? Check out our free QUICKSTART Guide.)

When is wildfire season?

Wildfire season typically runs from May through September in the United States. However, the start and end dates can vary depending on geographic location. For example, wildland fire season generally begins earlier in the Southwest and Southern California due to these regions’ hot, dry conditions.

The length of wildfire season also varies yearly, depending on weather patterns and the amount of vegetation available to burn.

The National Weather Service issues fire weather forecasts to help people identify periods when wildland fires are most likely to occur. These forecasts consider various factors, including air temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and the amount of dead vegetation present.

By understanding when wildfire season is likely to occur in your area, you can be better prepared to protect your property and reduce the risk of an uncontrolled fire.

When Is wildfire season in California?

Wildfires typically occur in California during the late summer and early fall, when dry conditions and high temperatures plague the state. (Click HERE to see Daisy’s experience with a California wildfire.) However, fire season can start as early as June and last through November.

The exact timing depends on various factors, including fire behavior and weather conditions. Generally speaking, wildfires are most likely to occur during a prolonged period of hot, dry weather.

Santa Ana winds, which are strong, dry winds that blow through Southern California, can also contribute to wildfires by downing powerlines that cause blackouts and fanning the flames that help the fire spread.

Californians can help protect their homes and communities from wildfire damage by being aware of these conditions.

How to prepare for a wildfire

As any Californian knows, wildfires are a fact of life. And while there are steps that you can take to prevent them, once a fire starts, it can be difficult to stop. That’s why it’s so important to be prepared for a wildfire.

One of the first things you should do is sign up for your local emergency alert system. This way, you’ll be notified as soon as a fire breaks out in your area.

You should also create an emergency plan and pack a go-bag with essential items like water, food, and medication.

It’s also a good idea to clear any brush and dead leaves around your property and be ready to apply fire retardant to your home.

Taking these precautions can help protect yourself and your property from the ravages of a wildfire.

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How to survive a wildfire

One of the most devastating natural disasters is wildfire. If you live in an area at risk of wildfires, it is vital to be prepared.

The first step is to understand the different types of fires. A crown fire is an uncontrolled fire rapidly spreading through trees and brush. It is tough to contain and can quickly destroy homes and other structures.

The best way to prevent a wildfire is by creating a defensible space around your home. This means clearing away any dead vegetation, removing debris, and trimming back branches.

If a fire breaks out, stay calm and evacuate immediately. Do not try to battle the flames yourself – firefighters are trained to deal with wildfires and will have a better chance of containing the blaze.

Remember, your safety is always the most critical priority. Following these steps can increase your chances of surviving a wildfire.

How to recover from a wildfire

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildland fire prevention is a year-round job. But even the most diligent efforts can’t always stop a wildfire from starting. If your home or property is in an area at risk for wildfires, it’s essential to know how to recover from one.

While professional fire recovery services are available, some people choose to take the difficulty of recovery onto themselves.

In those cases, the first step is to assess the damage. This can be difficult, both emotionally and physically.

The second step is to create a plan for knowing what to keep, what to throw away, and rebuilding. This may involve working with your insurance company, contracting with a qualified restoration company, and meeting with local building officials to ensure that your plans meet all applicable codes and ordinances.

The third step is putting your plan into action. This will require hard work, but with the help of family, friends, and your community, you can rebuild your home and your life after a wildfire.

The bottom line of what is a wildfire and how to prepare for one is

A wildfire is a large, uncontrolled fire that burns through vegetation. They can be caused by many things, including lightning, human activity, and even spontaneous combustion.

Wildfires can be very dangerous and destructive, so it’s essential to be aware of wildfire prevention, prepare for them, and know what to do if an uncontrolled fire impacts you.

Are you preparing for a forest fire? Tell us about your wildfire experiences in the comments below.

About Brian

Brian Duff is an all-in crazy prepper. He’s also a former paramedic, Army Ranger, and international security expert who runs the Mind4Survival blog and podcast and is a co-host on The Survival Preppers YouTube channel.

Brian Duff

Brian Duff

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  • Beware of believing that a Wildfire only happens in a forest. After SHTF and there are no fire suppression units in service, they will happen in cities. Just as the destruction that you see when a wildfire hits a residential area, will be the results, if one starts inside a city with no operational fire depts. or equipment.
    They might start on a weed overgrown city park, a year after SHTF or they could start out as looters fires that spread to other buildings or just a careless individual not taking fire safety seriously, with a cigarettes or a cook fire.

    Fires that burn whole Cities are somewhat rare, but not unheard of. Usually they have been a result of wars (Tokyo (1945), Hamburg (1943), Dresden (1945), etc. ).
    But the San Francisco fire of 1906, happened after an earthquake and the Chicago fire of 1871, was of undetermined origin.
    These types of fires are of Great concern (or should be), for Urban preppers.

    • spot on. psychopathic arsonists running free, people trying to cook over an open fire for the first time, fanatics starting fires as a weapon, homeless people trying to stay warm, it’ll all be going down.

      for those of you out in “the country”, ready to hold off the world – can you deal with a fire started up-wind of you, set to drive you out?

      • “ready to hold off the world”
        From who exactly?
        Your average American? The average American who is just more than a little obese?
        Go to Wally-World and point out how many could strap on a 30lbs pack and hump it for 8 hours a day, for three or more days to the country right now.
        How many of them even know how to shoot a rifle with any degree of accuracy? In a real world, oh crap, someone is shooting at me, and not a paper target at 100yrds from the bi-pod, bag rear supported prone?
        One in six are on some kind of anti-depressant or an estimated 37 million Americans. Based off new reports, even more from the isolation of the COVID lockdowns. There has been a real increase in those 10-18 years of age.

        What is the logic of trying to burn someone out? Okay, you forced them out. And you burned down the structures, the land, killed or the livestock all took off. Could be a year or more before anything could grow there. Have to build a new structure. What are you going to eat in the meantime if you burned down everything?

        Or is this another one of your, RV toll road survivors, where there are fully operating rest stations, to include electricity, operating CC/Debit cards, fast food, and gas stations like scenarios?

        • “From who exactly?”

          not everyone. maybe 1 in 3 could make the effort, 1 in 5 seriously, 1 in 20 competently, 1 in 100 professionally. but that’s a lot of people. and just like you were smart enough to think, “hey, I’ll go live with the amish”, they’ll be smart enough to think the same thought when the time comes.

          “What are you going to eat in the meantime if you burned down everything?”

          that won’t be an issue with them, because they’ll have nothing to lose and maybe something to gain. they’ll just do it and see how it turns out.

          “another one of your, RV toll road survivors”

          you’ll see.

          • Get those numbers from where?
            According to the CDC 41% (2017-2020) of Americans are obese. Since the lockdowns, probably add a few more % to that number.
            A study just released by the University of Georgia, shows 75% of children K-12 are not getting enough exercise.
            Trying to imagine nearly half the population, obese, out of shape children in tow, humping it out of the cities, for miles and miles exposed to the elements with what water and food supplies on hand?

            So, these people went from, ” lots of people do/will think about water and sanitation, and will try to address it.”
            to, “they’ll just do it and see how it turns out.”


            • “Trying to imagine nearly half the population”

              you’ll see the upper .1, led by the upper .01, coming to your region.

    • “a year after SHTF”

      this is a major consideration. modern cities are largely immune to out-of-control conflagrations so nobody thinks about such things. but a year after grid down when people have gathered around available water supplies and packed themselves into dense wood-shanty favelas, fire will be a major hazard, to them and to everyone around them. as communities are reconstituted and new communities are built, fire-resistance and fire-fighting will have to be incorporated from the start.

      • Runt7,
        While fire has always been a possible threat, history has shown lack of clean potable water and sanitation to be a bigger threat.
        People gathered around available water supplies will lead to outbreaks of disease like Cholera, Dysentery, Giardia, E.coli, Typhoid to name a few. 3.4 million people die of water borne diseases every year, making it the leading cause of disease and death in the world (source: WHO).
        I would expect it to be worse in a post-SHTF America, as your average urban/suburban lacks the understanding of how sanitation works or has the means to filter water. After a week of grid down, we would see cases of the above listed diseases. Without access to modern medical care, or hydration solutions (hydration salts: saw it in Afghanistan after a outbreak of cholera due to exactly that, large number of people gathered round a single source of water. If it was not for UN intervention, hundreds to thousands could of died), millions could die in the first few weeks of grid down due to lack of clean potable water.

        I can run from a fire.
        I cannot run from a water ingested disease.

        • “history has shown lack of clean potable water and sanitation to be a bigger threat”

          sure. but lots of people do/will think about water and sanitation, and will try to address it. nobody thinks about fire. as the refugee camps grow, the threat will grow larger.

          “I can run from a fire.
          I cannot run from a water ingested disease.”

          you can avoid or treat the disease. you can prevent or respond to the fire too, but few care to take the time or spend the money beforehand to do so. and few even think that way.

  • This is one of my worst fears. A wildfire (whether or not initiated by humans) could kill you even if it doesn´t touch you. These are relatively common in my side of the world. That´s one of the main reasons I want to dig a pond over a 40% larger than our needs. A genset, a pump and a large hose to spray BEFORE the fire arrives is already in the planning. A stone wall, waist-high will be a good first layer to prevent it.

    • I think removing combustible material farther and farther away from important infrastructure would be a good start.

  • The best preparation is to be prepared to evacuate. We had to do that in 2003 here in Southrrn California…we were scrambling like crazy. Later, after we returned home, we purposed to be prepared next time. We made EMERGENCY lists of who would grab what. My husbands list was computers, financial things, mine was different. We each have it handy and we have a list posted in our garage. We made a “Red File” that contains copies of important documents, account numbers, passwords, insurance info etc. my husband grabs that. We have emergency money set aside along with photo files. We keep this in a clear plastic bin marked “TAKE IN CASE OF EMERGENCY” in red. We also have two bug out bags packed.

    • Good plan. Another thing you should be thinking about: what will you do if you hear about a fire that may affect your home, while you aren’t at home? You probably should have at least some of your bug-out stuff in your car.

  • Wildfires Caused By Bad Environmental Policy Are Causing California Forests To Be Net CO2 Emitters, by Chuck DeVore


    “This is California’s big secret: it’s not climate change that’s burning up the forests, killing people, and destroying hundreds of homes; it’s decades of environmental mismanagement that has created a tinderbox of unharvested timber, dead trees, and thick underbrush.”

    [That article is easiest to read in “Reader Mode” with ads and other pop-ups suppressed.]

    I have read elsewhere that Native Americans had many centuries of experience in how to prevent forest fires — by cutting or burning fire break areas in advance. Much of that experience we seem to have abandoned.

    There is currently an intentionally humorous radio ad making the rounds about preventing forest fires. A girl is telling how Smokey Bear came up and gave her a big bear hug because she properly put out her cooking campfire. It ends with the official lie that “only you can prevent forest fires.” In fact, getting rid of stupid environmental laws that prevent the creation of fire break areas would be immensely wise and helpful. Of course such government ads don’t dare admit the problem of such stupid laws.

    There are plenty of articles online about this if you use an honest search engine instead of one that is chained to official narratives.


    • I used to use DuckDuckGo, but dropped it after all of the “stuff” came out about them.
      I now use Qwant.

    • “California’s big secret”

      oh it was never a secret, when these policies were being implemented in the 1970’s / 80’s lots of forestry people were pointing out what would happen. they were ignored. and now california is suffering exactly what they were told would happen.

  • I had a fire in my yard once. I was just having a few beers out back, and a spark from the fire pit must have lit some grass. About a 2 foot square area was going, I was terrified let me tell you!

    Luckily I was prepared because I have feet, and I used one to sort of stomp around. Put the fire out, but I’ll never forget it.

    Now when I drink by the fire pit, I make sure I don’t pee unless I really have to go, that way I can just whip it out and extinguish a grass fire of at least 5 or 6 linear feet I reckon. 💪

  • A couple of years ago, there was a wild fire that got within a couple of miles of our place. For the most part it was a fairly slow burning grass fire. Started by lightning. It was in a very rugged area making it hard for fire crews to get to it. We got to watch planes and helicopters laying down fire suppressant. Took over a month to put it out (or did it just burn out?).

    I did nothing to prepare for this fire, because between the fire and our house grow no grasses that readily burn. There are a surprising large numbers of native shrubs and trees, but it’s hard to get them to burn. In fact, in the burn zone most of them survived. The fire reached the edge of the grasses and stopped. Since then the grasses have started to come back, but in small clumps, not enough to sustain a wild fire, not yet.

    I used to live in California with its Mediterranean climate—winter rains that cause luxuriant growth of grasses, followed by hot and dry summers that make tinder out of those grasses. There’s no way to prevent wild fires—enough of them are started by lightning—so the next step is to build houses to be as fireproof as possible, with fireproof roofs so that flying embers won’t catch houses on fire. Secondly clean out all the dead branches and other flammable materials from around the house. Mow the grasses down. That way, when the fire reaches the property line, it will have nothing to burn and will stop.

    Some years back a wild fire burned down much of Oakland. It started in the grasses at the top of the hill, then the wind blew it down into a neighborhood. There the dead leaves, pieces of bark and dead branches kept the fire going. You may not prevent wild fires from burning on public lands, but you can prevent them from coming on your land.

  • This is one of the natural disasters most likely to happen to my family so we have prepared for this. We live in Australia in an area with dense and often very dry bush.
    Of course the worst fires are in drought years but you can adequately protect your home with water barrels stored for that purpose. During the 2019-2020 fires, Our young teens were given the task of patrolling the house perimeter with hand-pump 9 litre spray bottles to put out embers and leaf debris that was carried on the winds then dropped, often from several kilometres away. It was very effective. Clear your property as much as possible of debris, gutters cleared, the works. Keep trees away from your house if possible. If you live in high risk areas it just makes sense to be prepared. We were fortunate to be members of our local Rural Fire Service volunteers, so had the necessary training to do involved firefighting but a proactive, healthy and prepared person can often divert a bad outcome for their property. Of course there are some circumstances when evacuation is the best option. Be prepared for both possibilities.

  • Tornadoes, earthquakes and wildfires are the most natural disasters that I worry about the most.
    The two former can happen with little to no warning, and the level of destruction could vary from shrugging of the shoulders to miles of destruction.
    Wildfires I could have some degree of warning.
    However, I recall a report of a woman (living in CA), the wildfire was 30 miles away, and appeared to be in no danger. She went to bed feeling safe at 10pm.
    At 3am she was awoken to a firefighter pounding on her door: She had 5 minutes to get out! The wind had shifted and the fire had covered the ground to her door in a matter of hours.

    Then there was the Paradise, CA city fire that destroyed 18,000 structures, killed 85 people in NOV2018. The fire was so intense, metal parts of vehicles melted to include wheels.

    It is easy enough to be flippant and to paraphrase from Selco: Dont be there in the first place.
    I have read of a few people whom have grown tired of worrying, the smoke, and a few who had their homes destroyed not once but twice by wildfire, and have left the area/state.

    I do live in an area that is not tornado, earthquake or wildfire prone . . . but never say never.

    • Additional observation:
      Post-SHTF, no NOAA, no Accuweather, no CALFire . . . how does one know if they are in danger of a given disaster?
      Now, people who live in tornado ally, some can just feel it in the air.
      Earthquake, watch for animal behavior?
      Wildfire, saw some drone video of downtown San Fran, and they put it to the soundtrack from BladeRunner. The fire (Camp Fire IIRC) was hundreds of miles away.
      Then there are other things we take for granted, like NOAA and satellites giving us days if not weeks advance notice of hurricanes out in the Atlantic. Not only their presence, but strength, direction and speed. Storm surge could be an indicator (reportedly sharks leave in advance of a hurricane, but who is going SCUBA diving post-SHTF?). Some of the most deadly hurricanes in terms of human life were pre-modern weather forecasting.
      Snow beginning to fall. Is that just normal snow fall, or the leading edge of a blizzard?

      Yesterday, we could see the clouds build up. Then within about a minute, the temp dropped by about 10 degrees, the wind went from about 5mph, to 20-30mph, and big fat rain drops began to fall. Race to get everything in (we were grilling out with friends), close the windows in 30 seconds.
      Upside, the cold front ended the 2 day Heat Dome we were experiencing.

      Analog barometer? Old uncle Billy Bob’s bum knee acting up?

      • “Post-SHTF . . . how does one know if they are in danger of a given disaster?”

        can’t. just have to act as if you are until you know otherwise.

      • The first thing to study about weather is clouds. There is quite a bit on wikipedia, or you can buy some books. Storm fronts and hurricanes are effects of low pressure systems and an analog barometer will tell you about that. An old fashioned weather map will tell you a lot more about weather than a radar picture ever will. I can see that weather forecasting is a neglected subject by preppers.

  • “be ready to apply fire retardant to your home”

    What do we use? I thought the red stuff the planes drop is very unhealthy. How does the Organic Preppervrestore their organic garden and fruit trees after that?

    • posted an answer, but the board disallowed it. do a search for “apply fire retardant” and you’ll see some links.

    • There’s “fire retardant” spray on with a garden hose and water stuff out there, available to the public.
      But you have to be home, and have water pressure to apply it.

  • posted an answer, but the board disallowed it. do a search for “apply fire retardant” and you’ll see some links.

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