Wildfires – Introduction

2013 Black Forest, CO fire[5]
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Wildfires may begin in the wildland-urban interface or in remote spots where nobody notices them and then spread quickly, igniting brush, trees, and buildings. An increasing number of people are choosing to live in woodland settings, in or near forests, rural areas, or remote mountain sites. These homeowners enjoy the beauty that comes from being close to nature, but also face the danger of wildfire. Wildfires are most frequent in the West, but all wooded, brush, and grassy areas are vulnerable.[1]

About 100,000 wildfires occur in the United States each year, destroying lives, structures and tens of thousands of acres. The secondary effects of wildfires include erosion, landslides, introduction of invasive species, and changes in water quality.[2]

According to data from the National Interagency Fire Center, between 2000 and 2012, wildfires burned an average of 7 million acres and cost an average of $1.5 billion each year.[3]

Wildfire Impacts[4]

  • The Federal Government annually spends billions of dollars to suppress wildfires.
  • Wildfires increase the potential for flooding, debris flows, and landslides.
  • Smoke and other emissions contain pollutants that can cause significant health problems.
  • Short-term effects: destruction of timber, forage, wildlife habitats, scenic vistas, and watersheds
  • Long-term effects: reduced access to recreational areas; destruction of community infrastructure and cultural and economic resources.

Unhealthy Air Quality from Smoke

Air Quality Index (AQI) Map[8]
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If you are healthy, you’re usually not at a major risk from short-term exposures to smoke. Still, it’s a good idea to avoid breathing smoke if you can help it.

Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic matter burn. The biggest health threat from smoke comes from fine particles. These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. Fine particles also can aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases – and even are linked to premature deaths in people with these conditions.[6]

If you have heart or lung disease, if you are an older adult, or if you have children, talk with your doctor about steps you should take to protect yourself if smoke affects your community. If you live in a fire-prone area, plan ahead! Talk with your doctor before fire season, so you’ll know what to do in a smoky situation.

Only a doctor can advise you about your specific health situation. But EPA’s Air Quality Index can help you protect yourself when particle levels are high.[7]



  1. FEMA – Lesson 4. Protecting Against Wildfires Protecting Your Home or Small Business From Disasters: http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/IS/IS394A/04fire-0306.pdf
  2. NOAA – Forecasting fire: http://www.noaa.gov/features/04_resources/fire2.html
  3. DisasterAssistance.gov – Wildfires: http://www.disasterassistance.gov/disaster-information/disaster-types/wildfires
  4. USGS Wildfire Hazards – A National Threat: http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2006/3015/2006-3015.pdf
  5. Image Source: http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/nasa-fire-towers-in-space-watch-for-wildfires-on-the-rise/#.UyNFGOKfDzw [Accessed March 14, 2014]
  6. AirNow.gov – How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health: http://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=smoke.page1
  7. AirNow.gov – How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health: http://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=smoke.page1
  8. Image Source: http://airnow.gov/ [Accessed March 14, 2014]