BreezoMeter’s Guide To Understanding Wildfires

With increasingly unpredictable global wildfire seasons garnering more public attention, many questions emerge about the climate change correlation, different health impacts, and how sustainable, climate resilient solutions can help protect people, infrastructure, and properties from these extreme environmental events. We answer these questions and many more right here!

What Is a Wildfire?

Experts define wildfires as unplanned and uncontrolled fires occurring in natural terrain, i.e. a forest, prairie, field, grassland, etc. We can break wildfires down into three main types:

  • Ground fires – These occur when the roots of plants and other organic matter under the soil catch fire. Ground fires can smolder for a long time until conditions, such as fuel availability, are right for them to grow into surface fires.
  • Surface fires – These blazes burn dead or dry vegetation spread on the ground or just above it, such as dehydrated weeds and shrubs, as well as dry foliage.
  • Crown fires – As the name suggests, these crown fires burn through tree canopies mainly, making them more susceptible to wind. Because the typical canopy consists of interconnected vegetation, crown fires can spread quickly.

How Do Wildfires Start?

How do Wildfires Start?

Fires need fuel, oxygen, and some kind of spark to ignite them in order to start. Certain weather and climate conditions can often combine to make wildfire events more likely and directly impact how quickly they move or where they spread. Extreme temperatures, dry weather, and atmospheric instability can all contribute to the ignition and intensification of wildfires. 

NASA research recognized lightning strikes as a major contributor to North American wildfires starting from natural causes. In fact, lightning has sparked some of California’s largest fire outbreaks. With man-made wildfires, the origins vary between campfires, burning debris, fireworks, discarded cigarettes, arson, utility line malfunctions, and vehicle or equipment accidents.

How Do Wildfires Differ From Local Fires?

Experts distinguish between wildfires and other fires via a number of key parameters: their considerably larger size, the speed with which they can spread, their unpredictable behavior, which makes them liable to change direction unexpectedly, and their ability to cross barriers such as roads or rivers more easily. Wildfires can be characterized by the cause of their ignition, the material they burn for fuel, and the way they’re impacted by weather. 

Are Wildfires Getting Worse Due To Climate Change?

A growing body of research certainly points to this conclusion. The EPA warns that the average area burned by US wildfires annually has increased since the 1980s, with the largest annual wildfires, all occurring in the past 20 years, also coinciding with many of the warmest years on record. The World Economic Forum found that global fire weather seasons have grown 27% longer on average since the 1980s and the annual number of days with ‘extreme fire weather’ have become 54% more frequent. 

Further research projecting climate change’s impact on future wildfires suggests the number of extreme fires and their subsequent burnt area will increase dramatically in the coming decades.

What are Some Different Types Of Fires? 

Firenados (or Fire Whirls): When Fire & Tornadoes Mix Together

Firenado

A firenado, also known as a fire tornado or a fire twister, is an extremely dangerous phenomenon in which a wildfire creates a large region of extremely hot that interacts with cooler air higher up in the atmosphere. The mixture of updrafts and downdrafts causes atmospheric instability that creates a circular pattern of air, similar to a ‘dust devil’, with the added danger of whirling flames.

Planned Fires & Prescribed Burning: Why This Happens

The term prescribed fires, also known as prescribed burns or controlled burns, refers to the controlled use of fire to burn a certain piece of land. These prescribed fires take place under specific weather conditions and are managed by fire experts who understand how to prevent the blazes from getting out of control. The reasons for prescribed burning include forest health maintenance, biodiversity protection, and even reduction of future fire risk. 

Fires Caused by Slash+Burn Farming

Low-cost ‘slash and burn’ farming methods are utilized by farmers in particular countries, especially in the region of Southeast Asia. These slash+burn methods involve burning trees and plants to prepare fields for cultivation. They work by clearing the land and creating a nutrient-rich ash layer on top to help fertilize future crops and reduce the presence of weeds.

The smoke from these slash and burn fires is a major contributor to Southeast Asia’s seasonal haze problem.

Slash and Burn Farming

What Are The Visible & Invisible Dangers Of Wildfires?

Direct Loss of Life

The WHO estimates wildfires and volcanic activities have affected 6.2 million people between the years 1998-2017 and caused 2400 direct attributable deaths worldwide due to suffocation, various injuries, and burns.

Lost Homes & Buildings

Experts commonly measure wildfires in terms of how many hectares they burn, and some also include the number of lives and building structures lost in the total summary of a wildfire’s impact. From 2005 to 2022, the US alone saw an estimated 97,000+ structures lost – 17,663 of which occurred in 2020.

Loss of Essential Services

Wildfires can take essential infrastructure offline and make people and businesses lose access to actionable life-saving information in crucial times.

  • Cut-off scenarios can also occur as a precaution: during that same year, major US utility company PG&E cut power to more than 50,000 homes due to a period of high winds and low humidity conditions that could potentially create catastrophic wildfires in the area. The previous year, the company filed for bankruptcy after a wildfire caused by its power lines burned hundreds of thousands of acres. 

Learn more about the dangers wildfires pose to people and property here

Toxic Smoke Pollution & Outdoor Air Pollution

Wildfire smoke consists of a complex blend of toxic gasses and small particles, of which particulate matter below 2.5ug in diameter (PM2.5) poses the greatest risk to our health during a wildfire, and presents a bigger risk to vulnerable populations including people suffering from heart and respiratory diseases. Wildfire smoke significantly contributes to Particulate Matter levels in the air, thus it can directly worsen outdoor air quality. The impact isn’t limited to local regions either. Such air pollution has been known to drift across whole continents, and wildfire smoke is liable to impact a variety of regions outside the fire range.

Live smoke maps that can visualize local air quality at a high resolution provide an effective tool for limiting exposure to this harmful air pollution and enable live adaptation to extreme environmental events, a key factor for improving climate resilience. 

Smoke-linked Allergies?

While wildfire smoke is a known health concern and can penetrate our respiratory system much like pollen and induce an inflammatory response, it isn’t classified as an allergen. However, smoke inhalation shares similar symptoms with allergic reactions including irritation of the nose, throat, and eyes, shortness of breath, coughing, headaches, and more. 

According to Dr. Suzanne Cassel, an allergist-immunologist researcher at Cedar Sinai, “People with allergies and asthma often have chronically inflamed airways, which makes them very sensitive to irritants like smoke… They may experience worsening of their allergic symptoms or develop an asthma attack even to low levels of environmental smoke.”

Preparing For Fire Seasons: Fire & Smoke Maps + Timely Information

BreezoMeter Fire Map

As climate change makes wildfire seasons longer each year and leads to more fire-prone conditions in many regions across the world, wildfire intelligence has become a valuable tool for improving climate resilience. The ability to translate fast-moving & complex environmental information into intuitive visual and actionable, insights-first input is absolutely vital and potentially life-saving during times of crisis. 

In addition, dynamically personalized messaging and the capability to quickly identify affected audiences during a wildfire and other environmental crisis events enable organizations to deliver valuable information at the right time, in the right place, to the right people – exactly when it really matters.

1. Streamline & Prioritize Timely & Effective Communication

Through the integration of location-based environmental intelligence, brands can effectively reach audiences in wildfire-impacted areas during an active blaze and deliver real-time alerts with relevant health-focused information about local air quality and other environmental conditions in each individual’s vicinity. Users can also ‘see’ their environments by clicking through to educational web pages d\isplaying live air quality heat map visualizations and offering exposure protection tips.

2. Warn & Protect Vulnerable Groups about Wildfire Smoke Inhalation

app fire alerts

During wildfire seasons, health providers should proactively protect patient populations by leveraging wildfire intelligence in notifications/alerts that encourage early action: close windows, engage air purifiers or even leave the soon-to-be-impacted area. Messaging that helps patients understand the environmental impact on their health can achieve better engagement, make patients more aware of their personal risk factors, more involved in their own care, and more likely to adopt healthier behaviors.

Connected patient apps and dashboards integrated with tailored air quality insights also enable care providers to contextualize environmental conditions with patient symptoms and refine treatment plans in real-time. This also supports the adoption of remote patient monitoring when environmental crisis scenarios make face-to-face contact difficult/impossible.

3. Take Proactive Action to Protect People, Infrastructure, Goods & Vehicles

Understanding a wildfire’s exact boundaries enables taking early action before risks to life and property escalate. BreezoMeter’s wildfire perimeter reporting can inform customized warning alerts and tailored action recommendations for different needs, including: power outage management pre/during crisis to reduce new fire risks, preemptive network dropout alerts to minimize civilian surprise factors, and prevention of supply chain disruption by optimizing travel route navigation in real-time and protecting driver safety. 

With historical wildfire data, utilities companies can also improve infrastructure planning and maintenance schedules, avoiding future risk, damage, and liabilities.

4. Prioritize Critical Responses Based on Facts on the Ground 

As hotter and drier climates make wildfire ignition more likely and fire behavior more unpredictable, BreezoMeter’s wildfire intelligence supports healthcare services in their ability to predict high service demand areas and prioritize staff and resources accordingly to maximize life-saving efforts. 

5. Deliver Personalized App Reports During a Wildfire Event

Real-time reports delivering active wildfire updates become life-saving tools during such extreme fire events. Companies that leverage wildfire intelligence to deliver personalized reports through their apps can increase user engagement and build brand trust by enabling users to continually receive vital information at home or on the go.

6. Alert Citizens Automatically by Email & Social Media Feeds 

BreezoMeter’s air quality maps enable government agencies to clearly communicate real-time wildfire smoke impacts through color-coded visualizations while utilizing the most popular personal and mass communication channels. This enables maximizing outreach during high-danger events and warning as many of the impacted populations as possible.

7. Communicate Safe Through or Escape Routes

wildfire map route
Mockup of Wildfire Safe Route Planning

Through the integration of dynamic wildfire perimeter visualizations into HMI dashboards and various connected apps, automotive and smart mobility OEMs empower private and commercial drivers’ ability to safely navigate wildfire zones. Smoke warnings and other air quality insights further help protect driver health by prompting air filtration engagement or triggering automatic in-cabin air systems. 

Combining wildfire perimeter information alongside weather, air quality, and live traffic status presents drivers with the full environmental picture and enables smart mobility systems to develop road risk indexes that inform real-time route planning.

What Does BreezoMeter Wildfire Tracker+ Offer?

BreezoMeter’s wildfire intelligence technology can now equip individuals, businesses, and organizations with a complete, AI-based, climate resilient solution for the detection, analysis, tracking, and reporting of wildfires to save lives, protect property, and make informed decisions in real-time and for the future: 

  • Dynamic Perimeter Tracking: BreezoMeter combines satellite data and other environmental information to detect wildfires at early stages (from 500 acres) with global coverage.
  • Custom Fire Alerts: Personalized alerts can use a map of the active fire to warn users of the danger, keeping them informed and updated of the fire’s real-time status.
  • Live Smoke Reporting & PM2.5 Heatmaps: Hourly-updated air quality reports facilitate wildfire smoke tracking, with dedicated color-coded PM2.5 visualizations that can isolate pollution causes. 
  • Wildfire Analysis & Burnt Area: Once a fire has been detected, BreezoMeter’s Wildfire Tracker+ can provide ongoing analysis until extinguishment. The Burnt Area feature can display information about already burned areas and nearby fire paths, as well as alert the user upon approaching a recently burned area.
  • Reports & Historical Wildfire Insights: After a fire has been extinguished, collected data can be used for detailed reports. Historical wildfire insights can inform risk analysis. For each wildfire event, the datasets include such values as fire extent, time, location, and additional granular fire information.

You can see some (but not all) of these features already live on BreezoMeter’s own air quality and wildfire map.


Wildfire Tracking for Businesses – Act Now

Planning for wildfires can never start too early, especially as climate change predictions suggest greater wildfire season unpredictability than ever before. Climate resilience is now the determining factor for successfully adapting to extreme environmental events in real-time and even preventing major catastrophes. 

BreezoMeter’s Wildfire Tracker+ enables not only fast reactions to active fires to prevent life loss and operational disruptions but also the ability to strengthen consumer connections and garner brand trust by adding value to new or existing products through effective user-focused health-first solutions.

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Eli Ginsburg

MSc in environmental technology and water management from Imperial College London. Former environmental consultant, specialising in modelling of air pollution and environmental impact assessments.