Each year, millions of acres across the U.S. are burned in wildfires. Dry conditions, fierce winds, and human activity are often factors in the most dangerous blazes but fire season is also simply a part of nature's cycle. "Fire's not the enemy. We have to take care of fire, we have to manage fire, we have to be aware of wildfire but we don't want to demonize it," says Ken Frederick, former firefighter and public affairs specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center.
Even though California and eastern Oregon are currently in severe droughts, this year has been surprisingly tame. Only about one-third of the expected acreage has burned and 30 percent fewer fires have started than predicted by trends from the last decade. Still, this is no reason to ignore potential danger – the past has proven that late fire seasons can be just as deadly. A rule of thumb from Frederick: if pencil-sized sticks are cracking underfoot, conditions are primed for fiery destruction.
Mann Gulch, 1949
Credit: National Interagency Fire Center
The Place: Montana
The Underlying Cause: Likely a lightning storm
The Devastation: 4,339 acres burned, 13 smokejumpers killed
What Is Noteworthy about This Fire: The horrible loss of nearly an entire smokejumping team was likely the result of sudden high winds. Studies have estimated that the fire expanded suddenly, covering 3,000 acres in ten minutes and possibly jumping below the team when they were on the ground by way of rolling debris.