Wildfires 101: What You Need to Know


It’s more important than ever to understand how wildfires work, and their lasting implications on our health and the environment. (Nat Geo sponsored content)

What tools do firefighters use to combat blazes?

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit Text Set, including a lesson plan from Smokey Bear.

A tree is engulfed in flames near Seeley Lake, Montana, in this knockout image from 2007.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic


Discussion Ideas

  • Read through the Nat Geo article. What three factors are necessary for wildfires (or any type of fire) to start and be sustained?
    • Firefighters refer to the three factors as the “fire triangle”: fuel, oxygen, and a heat source.
      • Environmental conditions can impact the fire triangle. Prolonged drought can increase the amount of fuel available, while lightning or volcanoes can provide a heat source.
      • Human activity can also impact the fire triangle. Litter can provide a brittle fuel source, and warm embers (including campfires and cigarette butts) can provide a heat source.



  • What health issues are associated with wildfires?
    • Smoke, not fire, is the most dangerous element to people and animals during and after a wildfire. According to the Nat Geo article, smoke inhalation is responsible for 339,000 deaths every year.
    • Other health risks associated with wildfires include burns, respiratory ailments such as asthma, eye inflammation and damage, carbon monoxide poisoning, blood disorders, and heart failure.


  • What economic and social issues are associated with wildfires?
    • Health care costs associated with wildfires can be astronomical. These include hospital and ER visits, as well as long-term care and medication.
    • Repair and rebuilding of property can cost millions of dollars. Property losses may include residences, hospitals, schools, businesses, factories, infrastructure sites such as water-treatment facilities, and community centers such as churches.
    • Communities may suffer a loss of business income due to wildfires. Businesses impacted may include industry, retail, agriculture, and tourism.
    • Rebuilding efforts may restructure entire neighborhoods and communities. The “Great Rebuilding” following the Great Chicago Fire, for instance, excluded many poor residents displaced by the fire. According to our article, “After the fire, laws were passed requiring new buildings be constructed with fireproof materials … Many poorer Chicagoans couldn’t afford the fireproof materials or skilled masons to rebuild. In addition, many could not afford fire insurance … Without the means to rebuild or insure their property, thousands of people and small businesses were crowded out of Chicago.”


  • How is wildlife impacted by wildfire?
    • According to the Nat Geo article, “Some [species] have evolved to live with it, and some even thrive after fires.”
      • Small and slow-moving animals who are unable to outrun the fire are particularly at-risk.
      • Some species rely on wildfire to survive. Lodgepole pines, for instance, only release seeds in the searing heat of a wildfire (which can reach temperatures of up to 800° C (1,472° F)). Primary consumers, such as woodpeckers, thrive in these post-blaze habitats.



  • What can be done to reduce instances of wildfires?
    • Be careful!
      • Never play with matches.
      • Clean up and don’t ever leave embers.
      • If you have a lawn or garden, be sure to rid it of leaves and twigs. These can catch fire if a wildfire is near your home.
    • Controlled burns and the thinning of trees and shrubs can remove the build-up of vegetation that fuels fire. Areas on inclines are especially at risk because fires race faster going uphill than down!
    • Urban planning can help to reduce the spread and damage caused by wildfires. For instance, some lawn vegetation such as palm trees and eucalyptus make for efficient wildfire fuel, as these plants hold on to their dead biomass longer than other plants.”
    • Small changes to infrastructure may help reduce the number of wildfires. Downed power lines are responsible for many wildfires, for instance, so burying power lines may help reduce wildfires.


  • What are some of the best ways to prepare for wildfires? Take a look at this FEMA fact sheet for some help.
Click to download FEMA’s wildfire facts, and visit FEMA to learn what to put in your emergency kit.


A wall of raging wildfire hundreds of feet tall devours a forest in 1956.
Photograph by J. Baylor Roberts, National Geographic



Nat Geo: Wildfires: How They Form, And Why They’re So Dangerous

USDA Forest Service: Smokey’s Wildfire Prevention Detective Lesson Plan

Nat Geo: What are fire bombers?

Washington Post: The really scary thing about wildfires is how they can worsen climate change

Natural History Museum of Utah: Wildfires: Interesting Facts and F.A.Q.

FEMA: Be Prepared, Build a Kit

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