Are you in the United States?

Switch to Twig Science to check out our NGSS product.


The state of California in the USA suffered more than a dozen wildfires in October. Wildfires are fires that spread through the countryside quickly, burning through dry grasses and woodland. They’re often very difficult to put out, and as a result can cause serious damage to towns and villages in their path.

All of the major Californian wildfires have now been contained, which means that the firefighters tackling them are able to stop them from spreading anywhere new. More than 10,000 firefighters have been working to get everything under control.

Wildfires can be quite common at the end of summer. Long periods of sunshine and the lack of rain allow wood and vegetation to dry out, and this means they can catch fire more easily than normal. Sometimes this can happen during storms, when lightning strikes, but this only occurs about 10% of the time. It’s far more common for wildfires to start because of human activity. Occasionally, sparks from train brakes or power line failures are responsible, but the majority of fires happen simply because of carelessness. Unattended campfires can spread, and cigarettes that haven’t been put out properly are also to blame.

Getting wildfires properly under control is a difficult job, but firefighters are trained to tackle them in several ways. One method is to use specially designed planes. Water bombers are aircraft that can carry tanks filled with thousands of litres of water. They can fly over the fire and dump water on its hottest spots to reduce the heat. These planes have been designed to fly over lakes or the sea to scoop up a full load in just a few seconds. Other planes are designed to carry large loads of chemicals that are fire-retardant, which means that they can slow down the spread of fire. These chemicals are dropped along the edges of the fire, to try to prevent it from travelling any further.

Another method is to try to starve the fire of fuel so that it can’t burn any further. Once a fire has burned all the trees and vegetation in an area to the ground, it has no more fuel to burn, so it cools down and goes out. Firefighters can starve a fire by creating what’s called a firebreak.

A firebreak is a strip of land that is free of anything that can burn. Sometimes firebreaks occur naturally (for example, a fire can’t travel over a river), but firefighters can also create them by bulldozing trees and clearing them away. When the fire reaches the strip of bare land, it runs out of fuel and burns out.

A different way of making firebreaks is for firefighters to actually light more fires. How does that work? Well, if firefighters light small, controlled fires, they can use up all the fuel in an area and then put the fire out. This means that when the wildfire reaches that area, there’s no more fuel for it and it goes out. Smart, right?

Although you should always leave firefighting to professionals, there are things you can do to help prevent accidental fires. If you’re out camping, make sure that the adults in the group completely put out any campfires when everyone leaves the area or when they go to sleep for the night, and never leave the fires unattended. The adults should gently pour water over the remains of the fire to put out the embers, and then stir the ashes with a stick so that everything becomes damp. Any adults in the group who smoke cigarettes should always put them out responsibly by pouring water on the burning ends and making sure that they’re cold before putting them into a bin.

Little steps like these go a long way towards keeping everyone safe from the danger of wildfires.

Watch Savannah to see another part of the world that regularly sees wildfires.