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.
Oakland Hills, 1991
Credit: Rory Lysaght / Getty Images
The Place: California
The Underlying Cause: Unknown but called "suspicious"
The Devastation: 1,500 acres burned, 25 lives lost and 2,900 structures destroyed
What Is Noteworthy about This Fire: The day of the Oakland fires there were high winds, temperatures were in the nineties, and surrounding vegetation was suffering from a five-year drought. What made this fire especially hazardous was that all of these conditions existed in a residential area. Not only did this allow the fire to jump from natural fuel to structures but the water used to wet and save houses limited the overall supply.