WildFire 101




people leaving fire area

The Fire Triangle

Fire needs three things to burn – fuel, heat and oxygen. This is called the Fire Triangle. Fire is a chemical reaction between oxygen in the atmosphere and some sort of fuel (wood or gasoline, for example). Of course, wood and gasoline don’t spontaneously catch on fire just because they’re surrounded by oxygen. For the combustion reaction to happen, you have to heat the fuel to its ignition temperature.
Fire Triangle

The Science of Fire

Watching a flame dance through the air, you might conclude that fire’s a gas, like oxygen or carbon dioxide. It’s not. Fire can burn fuel that’s a gas (like methane), or a liquid (like gasoline), or even a solid (like wood). But the fire itself isn’t any of these things. It’s not its own type of matter; it’s something that matter can do.

A fire needs oxygen and some kind of fuel. The fuel usually contains big molecules that have carbon atoms inside them. You can think of these molecules as little containers of energy. When they’re allowed to combine with oxygen, this energy is released as heat and light.
Fire is a rapid chemical reaction known as oxidation. Inside a fire, oxygen molecules break bigger molecules apart into carbon dioxide and water vapor. All the heat and light of a fire comes from big, carbon-based molecules combining with oxygen.

So what is fire? It’s not the fuel or the oxygen or the heat or the light. Fire is what happens between all these things. It’s a chemical reaction.

Why Wildfires are Different…and Dangerous

Talk to any Los Angeles firefighter and they’ll tell you there’s nothing quite like a wind-driven wildfire. They’re bigger, faster, less contained and more dangerous than any fire contained within the four walls of a house.

Wildfires can move as fast as a freight train, create deafening noise as they burn up dry brush, and the smoke and flying embers from a wildfire can cause zero visibility. In other words, if you’re caught in a wildfire, you can be rendered deaf and blind. Without your senses, escape is nearly impossible.
Some wildfires can burn so hot and be so big, that they create their own weather. Vast amounts of super-heated air surrounding the fire can create wind tunnels as the air rises. The formation of pyrocumulus clouds can hang over large wildfires for days.


You know that heat rises. Now you know why wildfires love to burn uphill. In fact, they can race up hills, making the fight to contain them in hilly terrain even more difficult and dangerous for firefighters.

If you find yourself on a slope above a wildfire, evacuate as quickly as you can!

burned out cars completely destroyed by fire

A Little Wildfire History

1953 – Rattlesnake Fire
15 firefighters were killed in Mendocino National Forest when 13,000 acres burned. Arson was determined the cause. The Rattlesnake Fire is still used to train firefighters on proper wildfire procedures.

1961 – Bel Air Fire
The Bel Air-Brentwood Fire in California County is one of the most famous fires in California history because much of it was captured on film, and because many of the 484 homes destroyed were owned by the Hollywood elite. 6,090 acres burned. Most believe the cause was accidental when two young boys lit a small fire to cook hotdogs.

1970 – Laguna Fire
Laguna Fire ran through the Laguna Canyon to the sea, then spread south to the San Diego County mountains. The fire is part of Southern California lore and is still commemorated in Laguna Beach. Six people died, 382 structures were destroyed and 175,425 acres burned. Downed power lines sparked the fire.

1991 – Oakland Hills Firestorm
The Tunnel Fire in October 1991 became known as the Oakland Hills Firestorm. It is famous because of news footage that captured panicked residents who had waited too long, trying in vain to evacuate the Oakland Hills of Alameda County. Most of the 25 people who died, were trapped in their cars, attempting to flee the fire. 3,276 homes and apartments were destroyed, and 1,520 acres burned.

2003 – Old Fire and Cedar Fire
October 2003 was one of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire seasons in Southern California history. Hot Santa Ana winds fed over a half-dozen wildfires stretching from San Diego County north to the suburbs of Los Angeles. 6 people were killed in the Old Fire, and 24 in the Cedar Fire, which still stands as the largest individual blaze in the state’s history. Many of the 24 who perished in the Cedar Fire were, like during the Oakland Fire Storms 12 years earlier, trapped in their vehicles as they tried to evacuate. At least 3,452 homes are destroyed.

2006 – Esperanza Fire
Five firefighters were killed when a wall of flames swept over their engine. The blaze, started by an arsonist, burned more that 40,000 acres over the course of four days. 34 homes and 20 outbuildings were destroyed.

2007 – California Wildfires of October
Like five years before, October 2007 was a month where the skies above Los Angeles were choked with smoke and ash from nearly constant wildfires. Santa Ana winds, clocked at 85 mph, whipped up a dozen separate blazes that burned a quarter of a million acres (384 square miles) from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. 1,500 homes were destroyed, 500,000 people were evacuated.

2009 – Station Fire
The Station Fire is notorious for not only it’s size (over 160,000 acres) but for the length of the burn, which took two months to fully contain. Two firefighters died when they drove their brush rig off a cliff as they tried to map an evacuation route in the thick smoke. 89 homes were destroyed in and around the Angeles National Forest. Parts of the Forest weren’t reopened to the public for over a year.