A wildfire is an uncontained blaze that burns wildland vegetation. Depending on the vegetation burnt, it could also be known as a bushfire, forest fire, woodland fire, or grass fire. Wildfires can start through various means, but their typical path of spread and growth is through areas rich in combustible plant materials and vegetation. When left in its natural state, a piece of vegetation is considered to be combustible if it may easily catch fire, burn, and spread the flames to nearby structures or other types of plants. Debris, weeds, and dry grass are examples of combustible vegetation.
While wildfires that start on their own are usually beneficial to the ecosystem, extensive wildfires can have severe consequences. They devastate millions of acres of undeveloped land, urban environments, and numerous wildlife habitats. The intensity of the flames also affects neighborhoods resulting in fatalities and destruction.
The summer months (June through September) are considered peak seasons in the United States for climatic disasters such as heat waves, wildfires, drought, and storms. These are the warmest months of the year, with temperatures reaching their highest point. However, the wildfire season is starting earlier and lasting longer each year. The peak of the fire season in Louisiana usually begins in early September and lasts up to 30 weeks. As such, wildfires now approach the point where they may be regarded as less of a "season" and more of a year-round phenomenon.
Finding out what started a fire is critical to putting it out or controlling an existing one. Wildfires are generated by interactions between natural factors and human activity. However, people are responsible for around 85 % of wildfires that occur in the United States according to the US National Park Service. Human-caused fires include:
Burning debris and other waste
Malfunctions involving powerlines and other machinery
Reckless disposal of used cigarettes
Use of weapons and explosives
Intentional acts of arson (the criminal act of deliberately or maliciously setting fire to property).
Every human-caused fire may be avoided if the appropriate measures are taken.
While natural factors are responsible for around 10-15% of wildfires, they still play a substantial role in starting these blazes. The most prevalent natural cause is lightning. Lightning can be characterized as either cold or hot, depending on its temperature. Cold lightning is a return stroke known as light streaks that produce flashes or lightning bolts. This type of lightning has a high electrical current but only lasts a short period. Hot lightning currents have lower voltages but last far longer than cold ones. Lightning strikes that last for an extremely long time and are very hot are the most prevalent cause of wildfires, and climate change is increasing the frequency of such catastrophic lightning events.
Fire requires fuel, heat, and oxygen to start and grow into a wildfire. The fuel is provided by trees, grasses, and other biological components of a landscape. Oxygen is readily available in the atmosphere, especially when strong winds are present. Heat can come from various sources, including human-made fires, sparks, and lightning strikes. These components make up the fire triangle, and the fire will spread in the direction of an area where one of these elements is abundant. As a result, the only way to extinguish or control wildfires is to restrict one of these elements substantially.
Weather conditions usually determine the extent to which a wildfire grows. Lack of rain, high temperatures, and wind can all contribute to the drying up of trees, shrubs, fallen leaves, and branches, making them excellent fire fuel. The topography of a specific area is also essential since flames go upward faster than they do downhill. Wildfires can grow so huge (up to 50 meters tall) that they disrupt the weather patterns of the region in which they burn. They also spread swiftly on the ground, moving twice as fast as the average person can run.
Regardless, wildfires are also natural phenomena that play an essential role in the ecosystem due to their role as a driver of both renewal and change. They have been crucial to shaping Louisiana's geography for thousands of years. At a low and controlled intensity, wildfires remove low-growing underbrush, clean the forest floor of garbage, expose it to sunlight, kill insects and diseases affecting plants and trees, and nourish the soil. All these advantages cause the forest floor to open up, causing plants and trees to grow better and provide food and shelter for different wildlife. The discovery of the good impacts that fire may have in state forests has inspired a new interest in using fire, namely prescribed burning, as a tool for forest management.
When wildfires break out in Louisiana, the lives of the residents, their possessions, and the state's economy are all at risk. Wildfires not only contaminate the air with substances toxic to human health, but they also destroy homes, wildlife habitats, and natural resources. The risk of loss of life and property is also significant. They interrupt transportation, communications, power and gas supplies, and water supply. The event is known to impact the quality of surface waters. Sediments, fertilizers, and heavy metals are deposited into bodies of water used to provide public drinking water utilities (rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs).
The smoke and heat produced by wildfires are considered to be even more dangerous than the flames, owing to their wider reach and impact. Temperatures in wildfires may reach up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, making it hot enough to melt most metals. Because flames may spread fast and persons who are susceptible to high temperatures can become incapacitated in a short period, everyone must be aware of the fire conditions throughout the state.
The smoke created by widespread burning can remain in the air for days or weeks and travel large distances, depending on how long the flames burn. Smoke from wildfires can harm the health of those living nearby and far away. It can harm a person's eyes, irritate their respiratory system, and aggravate heart and lung diseases.
When wildfires burn, large amounts of tiny particulates, commonly known as PM2.5, and even finer nanoparticles are created, which are particularly dangerous to human health. This is primarily due to the extremely tiny particles' ability to penetrate the lung membranes when breathed, causing havoc on the respiratory system. In the short term, this might cause coughing, make breathing difficult, and aggravate asthma attacks. Long-term exposure has been linked to more serious illnesses like heart disease and stroke. Wildfire smoke's high concentration in reactive chemical compounds has also been linked to cancer and premature births.
The smoke toxicity increases with distance from the source of the fire. The particles "age" as a result of the chemical reactions that occur in the air as they are driven through the atmosphere by the wind, a process known as oxidation. This process converts the particles into highly reactive compounds with a stronger tendency to harm tissue and cells than when they were first generated.
These people are most in danger of suffering complications from wildfire smoke exposure:
People who already have respiratory problems often suffer the most consequences of wildfire smoke. This group includes those with respiratory diseases such as COPD or asthma, as well as individuals with heart illness.
Children, particularly newborns, may be at the highest risk since their lungs are still developing and more sensitive to the toxicity of the smoke.
Pregnant individuals are at risk because of the physiological changes that occur during pregnancy, such as faster breathing rates. Pregnant women exposed to wildfire smoke may have an increased risk of complications, such as preterm birth, and babies born with low birth weight.
Recently, there have been fewer wildfires recorded in Louisiana. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) firefighters fought and suppressed 1,638 wildfires in 2008. Over 1,000 fewer wildfires were put out in 2018 than in 2008 when they stopped 676 fires. This indicates that there has been a significant decrease in the number of wildfires in the state.
LDAF attributed the considerable decrease in wildfires to its efforts to reduce the frequency of wildfires across the state. These efforts include using outreach and public awareness initiatives to educate Louisianans on the issue of safely burning debris and conducting prescribed burning. Furthermore, the agency employs cutting-edge tools for identifying wildfires, such as flying drones, GPS technology, and satellite imagery. This technology allows for the investigation of larger areas and assists the ground crew while they attempt to suppress wildfires. To deter people from starting fires, LDAF enforcement agents also aggressively pursue arsonists.
Although the frequency of wildfires has decreased, the potential for wildfires to occur inside the state is increasing. The risk level presented by wildfires in Louisiana is expected to significantly increase by 2050, affecting almost half of the overall population. Anthropogenic (human induced) climate change makes the environment increasingly vulnerable to the threat of wildfires. There is a significant increase in severe heat and dryness, which are considered adequate wildfire conditions.
Wildfires have long-term effects on the landscape and can dramatically alter ground conditions after they burn. As a result, areas hit by wildfires may face an increased risk of flooding. Mudflows and flash floods may become more prevalent, especially if the region has lost vegetation that will not regrow for a long time because burnt earth can be water resistant.
Louisiana is most known for the Great Fires of New Orleans in 1788 and 1794. The fires were collectively responsible for destroying over a thousand structures and nearly the whole city. In October of 2010, many reports of wildfires were reported in Louisiana's southwest area. During the dry conditions that persisted from the 1st to the 29th of October, the LDAF reported that more than 483 wildfires had burned a combined total of 6,000 acres.
At the time, the two most damaging fires occurred in DeQuincy and Southern Beauregard parishes. The firefighters confirmed that someone started a fire the night before the incident. The fire was put out, but it started again during the night and grew. Because of the magnitude of the fire, a state forestry plane was sent to conduct an aerial assessment of the blaze to aid firefighters in putting out the fire. However, the fire was somewhat expected as forecasters had previously issued a Red Flag Warning due to heavy winds and abnormally dry weather.
The best protection against uncontrolled wildfires, which may spread quickly and affect animals, natural resources, and communities is to prepare for wildfires before they start. Individuals are better prepared to survive wildfires when their houses and valuables are fire-proof. The most critical aspect in preparing for a wildfire in Louisiana is staying informed throughout the process. People living in high-risk areas are advised to sign up for their local warning system alerts.
Residents are advised to take steps to protect their homes from wildfires by hardening their homes and creating defensible zones. The defensible space of a structure is the buffer between the structure, and the grass, trees, shrubs, or any other form of wildland surrounding it. This distance is required to slow or stop the spread of a wildfire and keep a building from catching fire, whether through flying embers, direct flame contact, or radiant heat from nearby burning plants and structures. Also, if it becomes essential to protect property, having a defensible space will provide firefighters with a safe space to do their jobs.
House hardening involves building materials and installation procedures that increase a home's resilience to the heat, flames, and embers that commonly accompany wildfires. The procedure focuses on the areas of a house that are most vulnerable during a fire. Some of these steps and techniques include:
Remove dry leaves, debris, and other combustible vegetations.
Examine the roof's shingles or tiles and fix or replace damaged pieces to prevent ember penetration.
Use fire-resistant materials for repairs, renovations, or new construction around the property.
Use non-combustible materials for fences, walls, and landscaping to act as a fire barrier.
Install an outdoor water source and hose that can carry water to any part of the house.
Shut off gas and electricity.
Pack an emergency supply kit for every member of the household.
Obtain insurance coverage for personal belongings, the house, and even automobiles. The insurance policy coverage should be adequate to replace all valuables.
Install smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, and fire-resistant window coverings.
Create an evacuation plan that should be practiced until every member of the household is familiar.
An emergency kit should be set up before a fire strikes. It should contain:
Face coverings and masks
Several days' worth of non-perishable food and water per person
Prescription drugs (if applicable)
Extra sets of car keys, credit cards, cash
First aid kit
Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
Copies of important documents and personal identification (birth certificates, passports, etc.).
Developing an emergency evacuation plan is a crucial part of wildfire safety. This plan must be established and communicated to every household member well before a wildfire to guarantee they are prepared. Each household's plan should also address its unique needs and circumstances. Overall, in addition to a carefully prepared emergency supply kit, an adequate evacuation plan should include:
Putting together the emergency supply kit
Directions and instructions for a wildfire outbreak (these should be practiced)
A map with at least two distinct escape routes mapped out
Considerations for pets and livestock
A prearranged location outside the danger zone where the household will converge. This is necessary to determine who has successfully evacuated the affected area.
It is important to note that many automobiles are damaged in wildfires, resulting in massive financial losses, especially for those who do not have insurance. Families who do not need their vehicles to evacuate should keep them in the garage and lock the windows and sunroof to avoid being exposed to ash, smoke, and soot from the wildfire. If a garage is unavailable, the automobile can be covered with a custom-fitted cover. Wildfires pose a significant threat to finances. To limit or avoid damage from a wildfire, organizing one’s finances before a fire occurs is best. Individuals might prepare their finances for the disaster by:
Hardening the home to minimize damage
Safeguarding important documents and records
Making a visual inventory of all belongings including automobiles, boats, and other vehicles
Reviewing insurance coverage.
The Emergency Alert System and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Radio both alert the public about potential threats like wildfires. The National Weather Service (NWS) issues warnings to inform the public of severe weather and dry conditions that might result in wildfire activity. High winds and low relative humidity are examples of these conditions.
The NWS issues these wildfire alerts and warnings:
Red flag warning: This alert signifies favorable conditions for fires to start spontaneously and swiftly expand out of control. It recommends that people living in high-risk areas take precautions and use extreme caution while dealing with the fire.
Fire Weather Watch: This alert signifies a potential risk of severe fire weather. The warning encourages the public to prepare because the upcoming climatic conditions may result in extensive wildfires or violent fire behavior. A watch means that potentially hazardous fire weather conditions are on the horizon but are not yet present.
Extreme Fire Behavior: This warning implies that a wildfire has the potential to expand fast and out of control.
These warnings are almost always issued along with conventional narrative forecasts. The forecast will contain a statement explaining the conditions and the affected location. Suppose additional information indicates that the predicted conditions are no longer likely to occur. In that case, the warnings will be withdrawn, and the public is informed of the cancellation via a headline in either the regular forecast or the special statement.
In addition to the NWS alerts, LDAF maintains a daily fire weather notice that informs users about the possibility of fires breaking out. These alerts include:
Low Fire Danger: This warning suggests that fires will not readily start. Those that start tend to spread slowly and provide little resistance to suppression.
Medium Fire Danger: This alert advises that fires can start from various unintended sources. The fires that start may burn with low to moderate intensity but may escalate with high fuel concentrations
High Fire Danger: This alert means that fires can start easily, and if fire suppression operations are not initiated immediately, the flames may become challenging to extinguish.
Very High Fire Danger: This warning signifies that fires can quickly start and spread. When this alert is issued, the fire's behavior is typically unpredictable, and the risk of it "blowing up" is high.
Extreme Fire Danger: This signals that severe fire conditions have developed and that the possibility of a fire catastrophe has increased significantly. In this case, it is almost impossible to put out flames directly until the burning has subsided, and containment operations face significant resistance.
The LDAF has wildland firefighting professionals on standby and ready to respond to any wildfires that may arise in the state. Their surveillance planes fly different routes in search of smoke from wildfires. If there is a fire, ground teams are immediately contacted. As a result, whenever there is an emergency involving wildfires, the LDAF should be contacted. The emergency hotline phone number is (855) 452-5323. The Office of the State Fire Marshal also maintains a database of fire departments throughout Louisiana. People who have cause to believe there is a wildfire should also contact their local fire department.
Monitoring wildfires is another excellent way to keep people informed about wildfire development. As such, it may be able to help people prepare and act appropriately. The US Forest Service operates public information portals that allow US residents to track and monitor natural disasters such as wildfires and obtain information about the occurrence.
Monitoring the probability of a fire developing, the fire's behavior, and the impact of the fire are all part of the process of assessing wildfire risks. Such assessments cause residents to be more aware of the wildfire hazard they face and be better prepared to engage in risk reduction measures. It also assists appropriate agencies and people in developing and implementing preventative plans.
In addition to the following wildfire alerts and fire/smoke maps, contacting the local planning and zoning office can help residents determine their wildfire risk. The office can advise them on whether their property is in a high-risk wildfire area and if there are any special regulations to follow. In the event of a wildfire, the local fire department may also guide state residents on how to best prepare, when to evacuate, and what response to expect.
When wildfires start, they are examined to see if they should be monitored or suppressed based on the following criteria:
Danger to both human life and privately owned property
Danger to natural and cultural resources
The wildfire site, (located in a woodland or grassy area that might fuel the fire, or an area inhabited by humans.
The safety of the firefighters and the community at large is the primary consideration when fighting wildfires. As such, when people and property are in danger, every effort is made to either put out the fire or keep everyone at a safe distance. Sometimes, the fire may even be allowed to run its course for the benefit of the ecosystem.
Wildfire suppression refers to the many tactics firefighters use to put out wildfires, stop or modify their spread, or manage them when they benefit the environment. Firefighters control the spread of a fire (or extinguish it entirely) by removing one of the three components required for a fire to burn: heat, oxygen, or fuel. They do these by applying fire retardants, removing burnable/dry vegetation, and intentionally setting fires to deprive an impending wildfire of fuel. A firefighter can extinguish small fires with a hand tool such as a shovel or axe, but larger fires need more personnel and equipment, such as fire engines, pumps, bulldozers, helicopters, and air tankers that drop water or retardant from the sky.
Wildfires may start without warning, trapping many people in unexpected places and circumstances. If there is a wildfire, residents who are inside their homes should take these precautions:
Stay updated with the most recent information published by the local media and the fire department.
Prepare household members, including pets, for evacuation
Take outdoor furniture into the house, farthest from the fire.
Keep emergency supply kits and other valuables in the vehicle in case of an evacuation.
Lock all entrances to prevent embers from entering the home
Fill pools, hot tubs, garbage cans, tubs, and other large containers with water. They might be required to put out fires.
Follow all the instructions provided by the local authorities.
If the fire cannot be contained, residents in the affected area may be asked to evacuate until the risk posed by the fire has passed. When evacuation orders are issued, everyone in the risk zones is asked to leave quickly and follow the instructions. Any hesitancy to leave might have disastrous consequences. Residents can do these when an evacuation order has been issued:
Continue to listen to NOAA Weather Radio and local alert systems regularly
Wear N95 respirator masks
Carry an emergency supply kit
Move away from the fire and the direction it is heading
Return only if the authorities deem it safe.
Sometimes, evacuation is unsafe, and individuals may be forced to shelter in place. Sheltering in place involves remaining in a building or other enclosed place during the wildfire. It may be difficult to evacuate safely if the escape routes lead straight into the burning area or if the fire is moving too quickly. To shelter in place, people must:
Turn off the house's gas supply
Wet the grass in the yard and the roof using a sprinkler
Fill all sinks and bathtubs should be filled with cold water
Remove any fabric-covered furniture that is near a window or hallway
Close all inner doors to keep the fire and smoke from spreading inside the house
Gather all household members in a room the farthest from the fire
Keep a cell phone, a fire extinguisher, bottled water, a battery-powered radio, and a flashlight with extra batteries close
Stay away from the outside walls.
Not all houses or structures are safe for sheltering in place. In such cases, it is advisable to establish plans with neighbors or evacuate early to a shelter. Houses that are unsafe to shelter in during a wildfire are often surrounded by vegetation that could serve as fuel for the fire.
People in vehicles risk perishing in wildfires if they do not evacuate early or assume their vehicle can outrun the blaze. Wildfires can jump over and around obstacles. They also complicate road and driving conditions including debris on the road, reduced visibility, a high amount of evacuee traffic, and smoke. Those who find themselves driving in a car during times of wildfire have these options:
Park the vehicle in an area free of combustible vegetation. If possible, park the automobile far away from the fire to be shielded by a solid object, such as a concrete wall.
Close all windows and air vents.
Cover up with a wool blanket or jacket. Wool blankets should be used instead of synthetic blankets since wool is less combustible.
Get on the car floor, and beneath the windows.
Turn on headlights and warning lights.
Avoid smoke inhalation by covering the face with a dry cloth (wet material can generate steam from the fire's heat.
Leave only after the wall of fire has passed.
People on foot during wildfires are advised to find a location free of vegetation and other flammable material (a ditch or depression on level terrain is recommended). In the ditch, they should get low, facedown, and cover their bodies with anything that will not catch fire, such as water, earth, muck, or flame-resistant fabrics, such as a wool blanket.
Following a wildfire, efforts to rehabilitate and assist people impacted should include creating strategies to prevent new fires from starting. Individuals in wildfire-affected areas should take these measures once the flames have gone and the thick smoke has dissipated:
Stay updated on news updates for further information on the fire.
Return home when the authorities give the all-clear. People who rush home may deal with smoldering ash, live embers, hot pockets that might start another fire, and unsafe water.
Wet the debris and land around the house because there is a larger risk of inhaling hazardous dust particles.
Stay away from fallen electrical lines, poles, or cables to avoid electrocution.
Look out for ash-filled holes in the ground and mark their positions. They might have hot embers beneath them, causing someone to get burnt or start another fire.
Put out any flames, sparks, or embers immediately.
Leave any warm or hot doors closed.
Cover up during cleanup and wear safety equipment.
Follow public health guidelines.
Use goggles for eye-protection.
Wash off ash on skin, eyes, or mouth.
Prepare to file a claim with the insurer. This involves contacting the insurance company, gathering photos or videos of the destruction, and requesting a damage report from the local fire department.
Air quality is usually compromised after a wildfire. Affected individuals can manage wildfire smoke exposure by:
Monitoring their health: Exposure to wildfire smoke often provokes diverse reactions. People who feel unwell should pay attention to their bodies and take action to reduce the amount of exposure. The most common symptoms are eye irritation, sore throat, cough, and headaches, which usually go away once the smoke clears. Anyone suffering more severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or heart palpitations, should seek medical attention immediately.
Preparing for the next wildfire: Wildfire seasons are getting longer and more deadly due to climate change. The most efficient way to protect one's health from the impacts of smoke is to prepare well in advance.
Monitoring local air quality reports: It is essential to stay updated on smoke health warnings and safety precautions. Anyone interested in obtaining more information on smoke from wildfires can use the AirNow fire and smoke map.
Keeping indoor air clean: Residents can keep smoke out by closing all windows and doors, and using air conditioners and filters to keep any smoke outside. It is also important to avoid habits that contribute to increasing indoor pollution, such as lighting candles, smoking, using fireplaces and gas stoves, etc.
Take precautions before joining cleanup operations: Participating in cleanup operations exposes people to ash and other fire byproducts, which can cause other negative health impacts.
Wear a NIOSH-certified respirator dust mask, such as the N95, to reduce the quantity of ash that enters the lungs: Dust masks should not be used as a means of protection. They trap large particles such as sawdust and are not intended to protect the lungs from the tiny particles in wildfire smoke.
Pets should be kept inside until the air quality has improved.