Wildfires are fires caused by natural or human activities and burn large areas of vegetation, usually forests or grasslands. The main characteristics of wildfires are that they spread fast, are difficult to control, and are destructive. Data from federal agencies put the area of land lost to wildfires across the United States at over 200 million acres since 1983. In 2021 alone, wildfires burned 7.13 million acres of land. The economic loss that follows these events is also huge. According to reports from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), the US has spent an average of $2.3 billion per year on fire suppression since 2010. This cost has also increased year-on-year, peaking at $4.4 billion in 2021.
The threat of wildfires is a major public safety concern in Mississippi. Per data from the NIFC, Mississippi wildfires burned an average of 80,000 acres per year between 2015 and 2021. For residents of Mississippi, understanding how wildfires happen and how to prevent one from starting in their area can help prevent irrevocable loss. It is also important to learn what to do and how to stay safe during wildfires.
According to the World Health Organization, the exact cause of most wildfires is unknown. However, historical data since 1983 shows that a mix of human activity and natural weather events triggers most wildfires. Lightning, high temperatures, drought, and lava from active volcanoes are natural events that can start a wildfire. On the other hand, backyard trash burning, campfires, fireworks, and unsupervised campfires are common human activities that have caused wildfires.
Indeed, according to the US National Park Service, human activities cause 85 percent of wildfire disasters in the US. In 2021, for example, the Natural Interagency Fire Center (NICF) found that humans were responsible for 52,641 fires compared to 6,344 lightning-caused fires. From 1991 to 2005, there were 52,532 wildfires caused by human activity in Mississippi.
Statistics published by the NICF reveal that an average of 70,000 wildfires have occurred yearly in the United States since 1983. The NIFC Indices of Wildfires from 1960 to 2013 disclosed a geographic pattern of wildfires in the US as follows:
Most wildfires happen in US states west of the Mississippi River with low annual rainfall.
Although 55% of wildland fires from 2002 to 2013 happened in western states, the fires were responsible for 93% of the acres burned in the US.
This skew in fire activity and acres burned is mainly because West Coast states have more land mass than states on the East Coast.
In terms of land area, western states make up almost 75% of the country.
Forest fires are common during droughts and very dry seasons and require three elements to start and spread: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Fuel is any combustible material like dry grass, trees, shrubs, wood, and building structures. Dry weather causes forest flora to lose moisture and become flammable fuel. Next, heat from backyard trash burning or lighting ignites the dry vegetation, and a fire starts and spreads. The low moisture content of these materials makes them flammable. The lower the moisture level, the easier it is to ignite.
Meanwhile, wildfires grow as they burn more flammable material and begin to spread. Wind levels and topography contribute greatly to how fast and far wildfires spread. Dry wind reduces the moisture in the vegetation and also supplies the fire with oxygen. Also, a wildfire will spread fast if the wind speed is high and steady. Furthermore, winds can hurl embers into the air, thus starting more fires in nearby areas. It can also change the path in which the fire is burning and carry the fire into trees.
Also, the topography of a forest, i.e., the slope and elevation, can deter or boost the spread of forest fires. Generally, fires spread more quickly upward than they do downward. If a fire starts at the bottom of a hill, it will spread fast because as the fire burns below, smoke and heat blow upward with the wind, which makes it easier for the fire to move.
In February 2022, Mississippi experienced 440 wildfires that burned 15,640 acres. These fires destroyed four homes and 18 building structures beyond repair and damaged some 265 structures, including commercial and residential buildings. Beyond structures, the consequences of wildfires also extend to the environment, wildlife, and the public health and economy of local residents.
Wildfires destroy plants and vegetation that support animal life and benefit the environment. When this happens, animals are displaced from their natural habitats. These animals find it hard to survive in alien environments. Also, many animals die trying to escape wildfires, especially small animals like birds and squirrels. If left uncontrolled, wildfires can lead to the death and extinction of endangered plant and animal species.
In addition, wildfires destabilize and change ecosystems. The loss of vegetation from intense, uncontrolled fires causes the soil to lose its porosity, meaning it can no longer hold water. Repeated events eventually diminish the quality of the soil and can cause the desertification of once-arable lands.
Wildfires also contaminate water bodies (rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs), making the water unsafe for agricultural, animal, and human use. The fumes from wildfires also release huge amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane into the air, causing air pollution. These gases worsen the effect of climate change and global warming.
Moreso, smoke, and soot are harmful to local residents. Repeated exposure to dangerous gases in particulate matter, most notably PM2.5, can cause or trigger respiratory and eye disorders like asthma, allergies, conjunctivitis, and even blindness. This risk is especially higher for children, pregnant women, people living with disabilities, and the elderly. In the worst cases, wildfires claim lives. Local residents caught in fires, firefighters, and other emergency responders have been victims of disastrous wildfires.
Economic loss from wildfires can be direct or indirect. Most direct losses come from damage to property like houses and cars. The municipality also bears the cost of rebuilding or fixing damaged infrastructure, in addition to fire suppression costs. On the other hand, indirect losses from wildfires are often due to lost productivity. For instance, businesses in the path of wildfires have to shut down. Likewise, residents cannot go to work if fires cut off driving routes and footpaths.
The threat of wildfires in Mississippi is highest between February and March because the weather is dry, hot, and windy, and the humidity levels are low. These components create an environment for wildfires to start and spread.
When such weather conditions exist, the US National Weather Service (NWS) issues a Red Flag Warning. In addition, the Mississippi Forestry Commission (MFC) approves immediate burn bans for some or all counties. This ban strictly prohibits outdoor burning or burning debris for the entire period the ban is in place. During this period, the MFC will monitor the weather and lift the ban on counties with improved weather conditions and vice versa.
In February 2022 alone, the MFC Wildland firefighters contained 87 wildfires in one day. That same month, Mississippi experienced 440 wildfires that consumed 15,640 acres of land. In March 2022, firefighters in Mississippi contained up to 86 wildland fires covering over 3,000 acres. The major causes of these wildfires were debris burning or accidental human activity. Only a few fires occurred naturally.
One of the oldest recorded cases of wildfire in Mississippi is the 1904 Yazoo City Fire. This wildfire swept through the entire town, causing the most damage to the city's business district. The fire claimed 124 buildings and up to 200 homes in the business area. Luckily, none of the residents died in the fire. The only reported death was of injuries sustained from a collapsed building. Nonetheless, the fire ravaged the entire town. The only surviving structures after the fire was controlled were one livery yard, a drug store, and two chapels.
The origin of the fire remains unknown. Public records show that the fire burned from 8:30 AM to 5 pm on May 25, 1904. By the time the local volunteer fire department responded to the emergency, the fire had engulfed most of the city. After the fire was completely put out and the grounds and atmosphere had cooled, residents rebuilt their city. By December of the same year, Yazoo City had made a remarkable recovery from the disaster.
The United States Department of Agriculture maintains an interactive map the public can use to estimate the risk of wildfires near them. Learning how local wildfires start and spread might help states and residents protect their communities from harm and damage.
No area is truly immune to wildfires. However, individuals and communities that adopt higher building standards and safety measures can reduce their potential risk and minimize damage and rebuilding costs.
The chances of being safe from wildfires depend on how individuals prepare for them. The Mississippi Forestry Commission has a Firewise Program that teaches residents how to design, build and maintain homes and communities to survive wildfires. The standards and strategies taught in the Firewise Program are based on the National Fire Protection Association guidelines.
Create a defensible space between the building and other structures.
Keep plants and shrubs around the house healthy and well-maintained.
Create space between the shrub and plants; it shouldn't be dense.
Break of dried branches and leaves from healthy plants.
Clear all dry or dead vegetation and trees around the house.
Make sure all combustible materials like wood and piles of leaves are at least 30 feet away from the house.
Remove all debris from the roof, chimney, and windows.
Use fire-resistant construction materials to build the house.
Use Class A fire-rated roof covering like metal roof, concrete, asphalt, and clay tiles.
Install fire-resistant glass windows and a fire alarm system inside the house.
Have an emergency water supply with a hose that can reach all parts of the property.
Get familiar with exit routes on the street.
The street should be big enough for emergency vehicles to drive and turn in. It should be at least 12 feet wide and can take a vehicle that is up to 16 feet tall.
The street name and number of the house must be visible.
Select an emergency meeting point with family and community members. Learn and practice safety drills.
Ensure all household electricals are code compliant.
Prepare an evacuation strategy and Go Bag that will contain items needed for survival.
There are certain items or essentials people will need to survive for a few hours to several days when a wildfire hits their county or community. An emergency Go Bag should contain the following:
Bottles of Water
A first-aid kit
Dried or canned foods
Respirator or dust mask
A battery-powered radio
A mobile phone and a power bank or backup battery
Feminine hygiene supplies
Nonprescription glasses to protect the eyes
Important documents like passports, insurance policies, and ID cards
A sleeping bag.
Having an evacuation plan saves lives and eases the work of firefighters. If people can get themselves and their families away from at-risk areas safely, the firefighters only have to worry about containing and controlling the fire and not saving lives. Every household must know and rehearse the evacuation strategy or plan to prepare for wildfires fully. A well-put-together fire escape plan helps people act quickly, avoid confusion and panic, and prevent injuries. To be fully prepared for an evacuation order, develop an evacuation strategy that includes the following:
A previously selected emergency meeting location outside the fire threat area
Multiple exit routes in the house and community
A pre-packed emergency supply kit
A communication plan with a friend or relative that stays in another area as a point of contact
Wear heat-resistant clothing and cover-up to protect the skin from flying embers — preferably long sleeve shirts, long pants, and shoes that cover the feet
Gather all pets in one room; this allows people to move them out quickly
Do not use anything that burns, like candles or gas stoves
Lock cars and automobiles in the garage if it is not part of the evacuation plan
Pay attention to the wildfires, and be aware of community disaster response protocols, shelters, distress signals, and evacuation orders
Rehearse the evacuation plan with the family and pets.
Wildfire warnings and risk alerts are communicated through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) under the purview of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The EAS is a general warning system used by federal and state agencies to convey severe weather information, distress signals, and AMBER alerts to at-risk communities. These warnings are delivered via television, radio stations, cable systems, and satellites.
Most alerts come from the National Weather Service (NWS) during critical weather conditions. However, federal, state, and local authorities also send out warning alerts in mass to their respective jurisdictions and communities.
Local authorities generally issue the following warnings during wildfires:
Red Flag Warning: This warning directs states and residents to stop outdoor fires and take caution with open flames until the threat has passed. The NWS issues this warning when the temperature is hotter than usual, with low humidity and strong winds. These weather conditions heighten the risk of wildfires. The NWS also warns when wildfires are ongoing or expected to start within 24 hours.
Fire Weather Watch: A weather watch alerts the public that a wildfire may occur within the coming days. A fire weather watch alert indicates that severe fire behaviors are likely to happen but are not currently ongoing.
Extreme Fire Behavior: This alert means an ongoing wildfire may become uncontrollable. Extreme fire behaviors are difficult to monitor or predict because of their abrupt formation, erratic movement, and sudden disappearance. However, extreme fire behavior may be identified if it spreads fast, has fire whirls, and has strong rising columns of smoke, debris, hot ash, and greenhouse gases.
Once the NWS issues a warning or alert, the Mississippi Forestry Commission approves county-wide burn bans. The local sheriff's office strictly implements burn bans. Anyone who wilfully and intentionally breaches a burn ban commits a misdemeanor. The offender may be required by law to pay a fine of $100 to $500. All bans are effective immediately and are lifted at midnight on their stated expiration dates. These bans prohibit all forms of open or outdoor burning, including:
Open fire grill
Burning trash and waste
Bush or farmland burning
As safety conditions improve and the risk of wildfires reduces, the NWS will withdraw red flag warnings. This withdrawal would be communicated to the communities via television and radio stations.
MFC responds to reported wildfire activity around-the-clock with wildland firefighting crew and equipment to put out the fires. The Mississippi Forestry Commission urges residents to report wildfires by calling 911 and the MFC fire response hotline at 877-632-3473 (877-MFC-FIRE). Residents can also monitor daily fire reports, which name ongoing and contained wildfires, on the Mississippi fire response website.
Wildfires are unplanned and unpredictable. However, preparing a home for wildfires before they happen provides a better chance of surviving a wildfire indoors.
When a wildfire is reported, residents should stay indoors but be prepared to evacuate
Have an emergency supply kit or go bag on standby
Take a visual account of all valuables that have insurance policies, for example, automobiles
Secure all vehicles in the garage if they are not part of the evacuation plan
Gather all pets in a single room
Wear protective and heat-resistant clothing and sturdy shoes
Park the car in the driveway facing the escape route
Confirm that evacuation routes are safe
Follow news broadcasts and radio stations for updates and instructions to evacuate.
Spray the roof, shrubs, and vegetation around the home with water to make them harder to ignite
Shut all windows, vents, and doors but do not lock the doors
Block all vents with fire-resistant clothing
Cover all metal window bars, and door handles with fire-resistant clothing, so they don't heat up
Turn off electric door openers so they can be opened manually
Move all flammable fuel material at least 30 feet away from the building
To prevent furniture from catching fire from the heat of a fire radiating through windows, move it away from windows and sliding glass doors
Take off curtains and drapes
Have a water supply. Fill pools, sinks, buckets, and tubs with water
Turn off gas or electric-powered appliances except for light bulbs
All phones must be charged
Keep an emergency supply bag close
Once an evacuation order is given, move as quickly as possible
Return only when local authorities give instructions to do so.
Sometimes people get trapped in their homes while trying to escape wildfires. To survive a wildfire when trapped indoors:
Call 911 and describe your location
Turn the lights in all the rooms and the porch on; this allows firefighters to see houses in the dark
Stay away from windows and walls
Gather all pets and family in the farthest room from the fire and remain calm
Call or send a text message to a relative or friend, informing them of the situation
Wear an N95 respirator to prevent smoke and soot inhalation.
Driving through a wildfire is risky. However, it is safer to escape a wildfire with a car than on foot. People who drive during a wildfire have to make it through tougher driving conditions than normal. It is harder to see through the smoke, so do the following:
Close the air vents and roll up the windows to reduce the risk of smoke inhalation
Be ready for discomfort, as inside the car will become hotter
Turn on the headlights and warning lights
Drive slowly and watch out for pedestrians and other drivers
Do not park near trees or grasses
To wait out a wall of fire, get on the floor of the car and cover up with a wool blanket
Turn off the car but leave the headlights on in a traffic jam
Remain in the car unless emergency responders direct otherwise.
The best way for people to survive a wildfire while making their escape on foot is to find a makeshift shelter in an area with little to no vegetation. If possible, make a temporary shelter in steep areas, a ditch, or muddy areas. Lie face down and cover up with a wool blanket or coat as a protective layer from the fire. Stay down until the wall of fire passes.
After a wildfire has been contained and controlled, survivors must take care to protect themselves and prevent fire from reoccurring. Clearing debris and rebuilding after a fire exposes survivors to health and safety hazards. Individuals must adhere to the following preventive measures and strategies to stay safe after a wildfire:
Wait until fire officials give the go-ahead before returning home.
Wear recommended personal protective equipment (PPE).
Take pictures of damaged properties and contact the insurance company.
Inform family and friends of survival.
Repeatedly check the roof and lawn for fire embers.
Avoid downed electrical lines, charred trees, and smoldering debris.
Report downed power lines to local authorities.
Do not stop wearing the N95 respirator until all environmental hazards have dissipated.
Keep all pets and children indoors.
Conduct system inspection on electrical systems as they may be compromised.
Do not handle any electrical appliance in wet clothes to prevent shocks.
Avoid using the water supply until it has been declared safe for use.
Discard all food items that have been exposed to the fire.
Avoid city areas that received the most damage from the fire.
Keep an eye out for piles of hot ash and note the spots they lie. Sometimes they mask hot embers that can cause injuries or start a fire.
If a fire starts, call the attention of people around to help put it out.
Handling injuries after a fire might increase or reduce the risk of infection and survival. Failing to provide first aid to soothe burns can worsen the severity of tissue damage. Injured persons or other survivors should call 911 and seek medical attention immediately. If help doesn't come as fast, manage minor injuries in the following ways:
Run cool water over minor burns. The water should not be ice cold but cool.
If the injury affects around nine percent or less of the skin surface and is only external, cover it with a clean damp towel.
Do not cover burn injuries with fuzzy material.
Covering the wound surface with a clean cloth lessens the danger of infection and helps maintain the body temperature.
If it is a first-degree burn, dip the affected area in water for five minutes.
If it is a second-degree burn, place the affected area in a body of water for 60 to 120 minutes.
To treat third-degree burns, use a cold, moist compress and bandage the affected area.
Wildfires produce a lot of smoke, soot, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other toxic particles. Smoke and other particles can linger in the air for weeks after a wildfire occurs. Individuals must protect themselves from smoke and fine and fine particulate matter as they severely affect their health, especially the heart and respiratory system. To reduce exposure to wildfire smoke:
Purchase air filters or cleaners to improve indoor air quality. Do not use homemade air filters.
Install a cooling system or air conditioner unit indoors.
Clean the floors, windows, and vents daily to reduce soot and dust.
Wear the N95 respirator outdoors to prevent smoke and ash inhalation.
Do not wear outside clothes and shoes indoors.
Speak to a primary health physician if you are having trouble breathing.
Pay attention to smoke health warnings and information on air pollution.