What Makes Wildfires So Distinctive?

Illustration for article titled What Makes Wildfires So Distinctive?

Wildfires can be alarming in the sheer size and speed. But what are some of the factors that combine to make the scale of wildfire so distinctive? A wildland fire expert — and former firefighter — fills us in on what's going on.

Top image: Firefighters from the Hotshot crew clear a tree using a chainsaw / USDA.

Mark Koontz, the Acting Branch Chief for Wildland Fire at the National Park Service and a former smokejumper for the US Forest Service, joined us today to answer questions about wildfire from both a management and frontline perspective. Among them was this question about the differences between wildfire and structural fire:


Hi Mark! Boiler Up!

What is different about wildfires as compared to structural fires - in a city, for example? (Aside from sheer size.) The fuel is different, of course - how does that make fighting wildfires different than fighting structural fires?What is a smokejumper, and do you have any interesting or crazy stories? What's the scariest or most adrenaline-pumping situation you've been in?

Thanks for your time!

Mark Koontz:

Last question.

Both structure and wildfire are dangerous, complex and dynamic environments. For me the big difference is wildland firefighters can see their environment changing, but other differences include the impact of weather, vegetation, terrain, drought, climate change, duration of fire, number of firefighters/support personnel and the impact of smoke not only to the local area but several States away all affect the complexity of a wildlfire.

A smokejumper is a wildland firefighter that parachutes out of a plane to get to the fire rather than driving or hiking. Being a smokejumper was certainly exciting but once on the ground our job was the same as any other wildland firefighter.

Thank you for your interest!!

You can read Koontz's whole Q&A, including details on how officials decide to allow a prescribed burn, right here.


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