We are all shocked at the horrifying pictures and videos appearing more frequently on the media of wildfires causing massive destruction. When I first wrote this post, in November 2018, the Californian town of Paradise was in the news, following its devastation by the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. Since then, many other places around the world have been destroyed by wildfires.
Unfortunately, research is showing that wildfires are occurring five times more frequently now than last century. Moreover, forest fires are burning six times the land area when compared to past occurrences, and lasting almost five times longer. Every year, wildfires globally burn an astonishing 350-450 million hectares of forest and grassland, an area corresponding to approximately 4% of the earth’s land surface.
Forest fires and climate change
According to scientific research, climate change and global warming are the two main culprits to be blamed for the sudden increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires.
Greenhouse gas emissions are causing the global temperature to increase. Warmer temperatures increase evaporation, which means the atmosphere draws more moisture from soils, making the land drier. A warmer climate also leads to earlier snowmelt, which causes soils to be drier for longer. And dry soils become more susceptible to fire.
Drier conditions and higher temperatures increase not only the likelihood of a wildfire starting, but also its duration and severity. This means that when wildfires break out, they expand faster, burn more area, and move with greater unpredictability.
What Causes a Forest Wildfire?
Forest fires can erupt due to natural causes like friction due to the rubbing of trees or lightning that further causes combustion of debris. It can also happen due to human actions like smoking and cooking in the countryside. More forest fires happen due to human neglect than natural causes.
Forest fires are based upon something known as the fire triangle. A forest fire needs heat, oxygen, and fuel to spread. Destroying the supply of any one of these elements will help extinguish the forest fire.
Forest fires can be classified into three main categories based on the part of the forest in which they occur.
- Ground fires occur at the ground level, beneath the branches
- Surface fires can be about 1.3 meters high
- Crown fires generally spread through treetops. These are the most dangerous. They might be fuelled by surface fires.
Fire safety while hiking
The prevalence of wildfires in Belgium is rather limited, although when they occur they often affect biologically valuable nature areas. In 2011, for instance, 2144 hectares of land burnt within the Natura 2000 network of protected nature areas.
However, it’s still essential that any responsible hiker prioritizes fire safety during hiking, whether in a low risk or high risk area. As many of my readers hike not only in Belgium but elsewhere around the world, I thought it was appropriate to address some fire safety practices while hiking. For this I am indebted to Arun Kumar of Riderstrail.
Avoiding and dealing with a wildFire
- Always assess the wildfire threat level of a hiking destination as well as the fire restrictions in place in the region.
- Campfires carry a high-risk factor and hence might be banned at several campsites. Always consult the official before setting up a campfire in a rural area.
- Stoves that use natural fuels like wood and twigs carry greater risk of causing fires than liquid, canister stoves.
- An emergency wildfire survival kit may be useful, consisting of non-perishable food items, bottled water, face masks and a fire extinguisher.
- Avoid smoking in the countryside and in campsites; in many areas smoking is forbidden anyway.
- For longer hikes, make sure you carry the top 10 hiking essentials with you, in case of emergency. These are navigation (map and compass), sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen), insulation (extra clothing), illumination (headlamp/flashlight), first aid supplies, waterproof matches or lighter, repair kit and tools, extra food, extra water, and whistle.
What to do in a wildfire
Here are a few tips to implement, should you get caught in a wildfire:
If a bad scenario turns even worse and you find yourself surrounded by a wildfire, try and remember these tips.
These are just a few tips to reduce the risk of starting a wildfire, and to help you escape one if you are unfortunate enough to be caught up in a wildfire. This post is mainly geared to hikers. If you live in an area that is highly susceptible to wildfires, this more extensive Wildfire Safety Guide might be useful. For children and young people, this free educative cartoon eBook might be useful.
Stay safe and enjoy your hiking!