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Five Surprising Facts About Wildfires

September 25, 2013; 8:23 PM

The United States is currently in the midst of wildfire season, with 1,218 wildfires burning more than 340,000 acres of national forests in California alone.

Wildfires can be destructive and catastrophic for natural habitats and the firefighters tasked with containing them. However, they can also have surprising and beneficial aspects in several areas. Here are five surprising facts you may not know about "Nature's Housekeepers."

1. Most animals are able to escape the flames.

Contrary to popular belief, the wildfires themselves are not devastating to all animals. Large mammals usually do not die within the fire; their instincts will lead them to depart their habitat before they are threatened.

For example, during the devastating 1998 Yosemite wildfire, only 1 percent of the native elk population was killed in the blaze. "Wildland Fire in Ecosystems: Effect of Fire on Fauna," a 2000 study by the United States Department of Agriculture and Forest Service, notes that "Despite the perception by the general public that wildland fire is devastating to animals, fires generally kill and injure a relatively small proportion of animal populations."

The animals who suffer the most population loss are less mobile animals like small rodents and insects.

However, wildfires can still pose dangers to wildlife even after the blaze has been extinguished. Many animals can die from smoke inhalation. Other populations can also face difficulty with the destruction of their natural habitat for food sources and landscape.

A fire whirl in a residential building. Photo by Roger Cotton/Photos.com

2. Wildfires can produce "fire tornadoes."

These "fire tornadoes" are most often referred to as fire whirls. They are a rare but destructive aspect to wildfires and can be responsible for the rapid spread of fires that were on track to be contained. Meteorologically, they are most related to dust devils or whirlwinds.

NOAA has defined a fire whirl as a "vigorous atmospheric circulation, created when highly unstable, superheated, dry air near the ground breaks through the boundary layer and shoots upward in a swirling motion."

The scope of these fire events can range from 100 to 1,000 feet and contain rotational velocities of up to 90 mph. When encountered, they cause extreme problems for firefighters because their direction and speed are almost impossible to predict.

3. Climate change may cause more wildfires.

A study published in Ecosphere named "Climate Change and Disruptions to Global Fire Activity" deduced that "warmer and drier weather may increase fire activity in biomass-rich areas [such as forests, grasslands], but have the opposite effect in moisture-stressed biomes [ice caps, deserts]."

While the effects of climate change on wildfires varies based on the environment and location, the authors predicted that higher northern latitudes, including the western United States, would experience a pronounced increase in fires.

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This study did not factor in man-made wildfires but forecast the confluence of temperature, biomass and annual precipitation to determine their findings.

In August and September 2007, a lightning strike sparked the 48,000-acre Castle Rock wildfire near Ketchum, Idaho. Photo credit: Kari Greer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

4. A certain type of beetle thrives during forest fires.

The beetle of the subgenus Melanophils uses its specialized infrared radiation sensors to detect burning forests. Once they have found their desired inferno, they mate and lay eggs in the scorched trees. The beetles find wildfire-ravaged landscapes desirable because the dead trees no longer have defense mechanisms like sap to protect insects from burrowing.

The U.S. Department of Defense has studied the beetles' infrared sensing capabilities in the hopes it could help defense technology, such as heat-seeking missiles.

5. Most wildfires are man-made.

While fires may be caused by lightning strikes and other naturally occurring events, it is estimated that over 80 percent of wildfires are direct results of human error. Unattended campfires and discarded cigarettes are a few of the common man-made causes and they can destroy thousands of acres and endanger millions of lives.

Always practice fire safety and remember, as Smokey the Bear says, "Only you can prevent wildfires."


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Erin Cassidy at cassidye@accuweather.com. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.

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