Wildfires: Causes, Impacts and Prevention

Wildfires: Causes, Impacts and Prevention

September 23, 2018

This summer has seen thousands of wildfires tear blazing paths of destruction throughout western North America. British Columbia saw its worst fire season on record and California had the largest fire in its history. Multiple lives have been lost, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and billions of dollars’ worth of damage has been caused. Wildfires seem to be growing in number, size and intensity at an alarming rate, leaving us to wonder why is this and what can be done about it?

What causes wildfires

In Canada, forest fires started by lightning represent 45% of all fires and 81% of total area burned. The frequency of lightning strikes is increasing due to global warming, as lightning strikes increase up to 15% with every degree of warming we experience.

Approximately 40% of wildfires in Canada are caused by human activity. Things such negligently discarding cigarettes, unattended campfires, fireworks, forest equipment failure, and intentional acts of arson are just some of the ways that humans are starting wildfires.

Why certain areas are more prone to wildfires

While wildfires occur all over North America, they seem to happen more frequently and at a higher intensity on the west coast  of the United States and Canada. That is because the west is experiencing higher levels of drought due to climate change and because of the drought; trees are dying at a higher rate. Add to that the Mountain Pine Beetle that has ravaged western North America forests, leaving hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of dead trees in their wake, wildfires are inevitable.

Impacts on the environment

There are many positives that come along with forest fires, such as:

  • Clearing up dead and decaying matter
  • Removing diseased plants and harmful insects
  • Some plants rely on fire to provide conditions for germination
  • Animals such as deer, elk thrive on the vegetation that grows on burned sites

Negative impacts include:

  • Tonnes of CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere
  • Soil erosion
  • Destruction of wildlife habitat
  • Wildlife population displacement and loss
  • Degrades water quality
  • Increase the risk of flash floods
  • Lower air quality


Firefighting experts say that the best way to fight wildfires is with fire. Prescribed burning to eliminate fuel sources for lightning strikes is the best way to reduce damage caused by wildfires, as it limits their ability to spread. Years of a reduction in prescribed burning has caused a massive buildup of dead materials on the forest floors, allowing for fires to spread rapidly.

What can you do to help?

  • Educate yourself on fire bans and adhere to any bans in place before you go out. Report anyone not adhering to bans.
  • Never leave a fire unattended. Ensure your fire is completely extinguished by dousing it with water and stirring the ashes until they are cold.
  • Do not discard cigarettes, matches, and smoking materials from moving vehicles. Be certain to completely extinguish cigarettes before disposing of them.
  • Contact 911 or park services if you notice an unattended or out of control fire.
  • Report wildfires immediately to help reduce the spread of existing fires

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