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Spreading Like Wildfire: Misconceptions About Wildfire


Misinformation in the digital era is as important as ever. The fight to keep safe from fire in California has become more contentious and high stakes as climate change dries the vegetation. In addition, over a hundred years of fire suppression has created the potential for stand clearing megafires rather than naturally occurring fires, which are typically low intensity understory fires.


At least you have control of what information you believe. Keep yourself informed on the reality of wildfire by peeking below. Please note that many of these misconceptions are Westernized perceptions of fire and the environmental consequences often disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities.


1) MISCONCEPTION: Cars are dangerous to use during wildfires and you are likely to get trapped or die in your car.


REALITY: Leaving your vehicle to proceed on foot is more dangerous than remaining in your vehicle to patiently evacuate.

Very rarely are people killed in cars during wildfires. Cars will not explode, spark, or malfunction because of a wildfire. Set up emergency alerts and leave in your car when instructed to stay safe from wildfire. When evacuating early you are helping the firefighters by making sure they do not have to rescue you and instead can focus on fire containment and potentially save more buildings from destruction.


Cases of wildfire casualties in cars tend to involve extraneous circumstances including car accidents and not following evacuation instructions.


2) MISCONCEPTION: Recent wildfires are normal and nature will regenerate to a similar state.


REALITY: Wildfires in recent years have been significantly higher intensity, more destructive, and larger spread of wildfire than historically recorded. Climate change will continue to cause more extreme weather events, including wildfires by drying fuels (vegetation).

However, a century of forest mismanagement through complete fire suppression has caused some of this wildfire behavior. Luckily we are working to change how we manage forests and hopefully we can slow the effects of climate change as well.


3) MISCONCEPTION: Fuels/vegetation management work is an excuse to log for monetary gain.


REALITY: Fuel management work removes dry grasses, shrubs, thin trees that are crowding established trees, invasive vegetation, and dead material (leaf litter and deceased trees).

Large trees are important for preventing wildfire on a landscape. They provide cooling shade and are not easily ignition sources. They are not removed in this type of work because they provide protection against wildfire. Sometimes trees are limbed-up (meaning bottom limbs are removed) to prevent fire from getting into the crown of the trees. None of the products are of selling quality, and often removed fuels are left on the land in the form of woodchips.


4) MISCONCEPTION: Logging forests prevents wildfires.


REALITY: Clear cut areas often burn more intensely than forested areas. They contain less cool shade and more flammable materials like grasses, leaves and shrubs. And even though the above-ground trunks are gone, the root system still remains as a fuel source for the wildfire.



Misconceptions and misinformation have real impact. These impacts may reveal themselves through misinformed citizens delaying a project or causing fear and panic during wildfire events which delay action. Take for example The Smokey Bear campaign. Smokey is a firefighting bear that is just trying to help our forests, right? Well, not exactly. This public campaign declared “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fire!” and “Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires!” due to the lack of available firefighters because of WWII. But the campaign hasn’t stopped despite potential culpability in the wildfire suppression regime in the US for arguably the last century.


While we as individuals may not be able to tackle the misinformed ideas about wildfire, you can take action in a few ways right now. You can sign up for the emergency alert system in your area and be aware of high risk fire days. If you live or own property in the Wilderness-Urban Interface or in a rural area, be aware of basic home hardening and fire-smart landscaping.


For more information on this topic:

Counteracting wildfire misinformation


Spreading Like Wildfire: Solutions for Abating the Fake News Problem on Social Media via Technology Controls and Government Regulation


Global Trends in Wildfire and Its Impacts: Perceptions Versus Realities in a Changing World

How The Smokey Bear Effect Led To Raging Wildfires


The Unequal Vulnerability of Communities of Color to Wildfire


Social vulnerability and wildfire in the wildland-urban interface : literature synthesis



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