Code of the West: Be prepared for wildfires

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | Thursday, August 13, 2015

Peak season for wildfires poses a whole new trip planning problem for truck drivers.

Wildfires across the United States have destroyed more than 6 million acres this year, the most since 2011 and nearly three times the acreage this time last year. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) is reporting that 100,000 acres have burned in California alone from Jan.1 through Aug. 1. Last year, wildfires affected approximately 87,000 acres in the same time frame.

As California and other western states continue to suffer a major drought and as the peak months for wildfires have yet to come, drivers should be cautious when traveling through high-risk areas.

Last month, nearly two dozen cars, trucks and vans were set ablaze and destroyed by a wildfire jumping across Interstate 15 near San Bernardino, Calif., confirmed Lynette Round, Cal Fire information officer. Nearly 100 vehicles were trapped as travelers drove into a fast-burning fire.

Drivers need to be prepared if they find themselves in a similar position. Whether to stay in the truck or abandon ship is a judgment call you have to make yourself. Round gave Land Line the following tips if it’s not safe to cut and run and you are trapped in the truck.

  • Roll windows up
  • Leave the engine running
  • Press lightly on the accelerator
  • Turn off the air conditioner
  • Get low on the floor
  • Cover up (and not with anything synthetic)


Round says that 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans. Many highway fires are caused by vehicles. Chains hitting the ground can generate sparks and cause fires in nearby brush. Brakes that are wearing down can lead to metal-on-metal grinding, which can also generate sparks.

In September 2011, a spark from a heavy truck started a 3,600-acre forest fire in Washington. The fire was blamed on a diesel particulate filter. A coalition of business owners and truck owners think as many as 31 fires have been caused by DPFs required under California’s Truck and Bus Rule and are now suing the California Air Resources Board.

According to the California Department of Water Resources, the Golden State has undergone three consecutive years of unusually dry conditions. Three main water sources have been draining as a result. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is at 14 percent of normal levels.

Santa Ana winds will also play a role in wildfires in the coming months. As defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Santa Ana winds are “strong, hot, dust-bearing winds” that occur in southern California. These winds typically peak in October, making wildfire conditions strong in September and October, according to the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A one-two punch of a four-year drought and Santa Ana winds will make the coming months ripe for wildfires across southern California.

California is not the only state susceptible to wildfires. As of press time, there are 51 large active wildfires in the United States. Although California has the most at 14, Oregon has 12, Washington with six, five in Montana and four in Idaho. Wildfires are also being reported everywhere from Hawaii to North Carolina.

According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, wildfires are the direct result of three key components: heat, fuel and oxygen. Heat comes from sources such as the sun, a spark, overheated engine, etc. Fuels include vegetation (dead or alive), coal, human built structures or any combustible material. As long as the fire obtains air with 16 percent oxygen (air contains 21 percent), the fire will continue to burn. Any area meeting those conditions can experience a wildfire.

NIFC’s outlook for August through November reveals a similar prediction. Southern California, the Northwest, and western portions of the northern Rockies are expected to have above normal fire potential for August and September. Regions across the U.S. will stabilize to normal activity in October and November, with the exception of persistent above-average levels in southern California.

Round suggests checking conditions before traveling through high-risk areas via sources like fire.ca.gov and preventwildfireca.org for wildfire information in California. For other parts of the country, visit inciweb.nwcg.gov.

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