Where, When, and How Often Do Wildfires Occur

wildfire smoke in the distance

In recent years, it may seem like wildfires have become more frequent, especially in certain parts of the country and continent. As natural events, wildfires can cause harm, but understanding why and how they occur can help minimize your risk. In the same way that not all locations are prone to hurricanes, there are also geographic and environmental fire risk factors that contribute to wildfire occurrences. In this article, we’ll cover where, when, and how often wildfires occur and what you can do to protect yourself.

Understanding the Geography of Wildfires: Locations and Hotspots

In the United States, fire management and data collection are overseen by a number of agencies, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Fire Administration, and the US Forest Service, which also manages the Active Fire Mapping program. Two of the biggest contributors to wildfires are vegetation and climate. Both of these vary across the fifty states, but there are some commonalities when it comes to the places where fire frequency is greatest. The states with the most wildfire incidents include:

  • California: This state in the Pacific Northwest has had almost 2,000 wildfires in 2023, to date. It’s experienced drought for years, which creates dry circumstances that fuel the fire’s strength and frequency, which we’ll also cover in the next section.
  • Arizona: This southwestern state is also incredibly dry, making it a hotspot for wildfires, especially during the summer months.
  • Oregon: Vegetation that fuels the fire, like a prevalence of conifers, is one of the biggest reasons why they occur in this state, also located in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Washington: The third Pacific Northwestern state on this list has similar qualities to Oregon and California. Low soil moisture content, especially during hot summers, causes their prevalence here.
  • Alaska: While this state may seem unexpected due to its location and cold climate, Alaska had over 3 million acres of total burn areas in 2022. Dry conditions and vast uninhabited space allows fire to spread, leading to these fire incidents. Because they occur in the tundra, it can be difficult for fire management resources to reach them.

Factors Influencing Wildfire Frequency and Distribution

dry arid mountain range showing wildfire conditions

Before addressing the factors that play a part in when and how often wildfires happen, it’s important to note the difference between a controlled burn and a wildfire. Controlled burns are intentional fires that preserve the health of forests. Wildfires, on the other hand, are unplanned and unintentional. They can last for months and damage hundreds of thousands of acres, including homes and personal property, posing a threat to people’s health and safety.

Despite the risk that wildfires pose, fire ecology, and more specifically, fire history, have allowed scientists to get a better understanding of why some regions, like the Southwestern and Pacific Northwestern United States, are more prone to wildfires. Some of these factors that influence fire behavior and wildfire patterns include:

  • Drought: Without enough water in an environment, fire is fueled by dry conditions and able to spread much easier. This is especially true for states like California, which have faced little reprieve from these conditions in order to restore hydration levels.
  • Seasonal patterns: The season plays a big role in the prevalence and frequency of fires. The summer months are when wildfires occur most frequently, as temperatures are hot and land is drier than wet seasons, like the winter, which typically have more precipitation.
  • Vegetation: As mentioned earlier, low soil moisture content and vast regions of dry brush (like in a desert) can cause wildfires to spread easier, as they are more susceptible to ignition and fire spread.

The reasons why fires start in the first place can also vary depending on the region and environmental conditions. Ignition sources include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Human activities: People’s actions, such as failing to put out campfires properly, discarding cigarettes, or even malfunctions from equipment or fireworks, are all reasons why wildfires have started in the past. It’s a reminder that you should always be extra cautious when spending time outdoors and avoid the inappropriate use of these materials whenever possible. Many times, human-caused fire incidents are unintentional or accidental but can still have costly effects.
  • Lightning strikes: Lightning and thunderstorms in the aforementioned areas where vegetation is dry can cause wildfires to start.
  • Agricultural or industrial events: Controlled burns that are mismanaged or events in the industrial sector like gas or oil well fires are another human cause that can lead to the start and spread of wildfires.

Exploring the Impact of Climate Change on Wildfire Frequency

forest with wildfire smoke coming out of it in the distance

Fire season, when most wildfires occur, falls between June and August for most of the United States, but it could be affected by climate change. Climate and wildfires go hand in hand because of the way that moisture and heat affect the vegetation where fires spread. The heat can lead to drought and dry land, which is where fires tend to spread the most often. If climate change exacerbates the stress on the land and temperatures increase, fire frequency could increase as well, and states like Alaska are already experiencing the effects of longer warm seasons.

Staying Safe During Wildfire Season

While wildfires can pose a risk to your safety, there are plenty of things you can do to stay safe. It can be useful to have an evacuation plan in effect, stay alert to local notices and weather updates (especially during fire season), and educate yourself on the warning signs and causes of wildfires. One of the biggest ways you can provide yourself with an extra level of security and comfort is by maintaining essential supplies, like a Grab + Go Box, which prepares you for any emergency situation.
Tags: Wildfire