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What you can do to help prevent deadly, devastating wildfires from occurring

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

Many of us are familiar with the famous catchphrase of the longest-running public service advertising campaign in the United States: “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

Smokey Bear’s campaign, started in 1944, continues to be especially relevant today as wildfires have burned more intensely and frequently in recent years.

Fighting these rampant blazes costs the U.S. billions of dollars each year, and it turns out that humans have caused a significant chunk of these destructive wildfires.

A 2017 report from researchers with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Earth Lab revealed that human-ignited wildfires accounted for 84 percent of all wildfires analyzed over two decades.

Portugal wildfires 2017 - AP Photo

Villagers watch a firefighting plane drop water to stop a raging forest fire reaching their houses just a few dozen meters away in the village of Chao de Codes, near Macao, central Portugal, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

“Public dialog and ongoing research have focused on increasing wildfire risk because of climate warming, overlooking the direct role that people play in igniting wildfires and increasing fire activity,” the report read.

In 2018, a gender reveal event in southern Arizona went wrong when an off-duty U.S. Border Patrol agent shot at a target to reveal the unborn child’s gender. Video from the U.S. Forest Service showed the target exploding and igniting the tall, dry grass in the area, according to the Associated Press.

The fire went on to ravage 73 square miles of state and federal land, costing $8 million in damages and firefighting costs.

Researchers from the 2017 study found that wildfires started by people “tripled the length of the fire season, dominated an area seven times greater than that affected by lightning fires and were responsible for nearly half of all areas burned.”

As humans tend to play a huge role in the ignition of a large number of these often deadly wildfires, it’s essential to know what you can do to prevent one from occurring in the first place.

How to prevent wildfires from starting

If you’re one of the more than 40 million people who enjoy the great outdoors and camping in the U.S., according to the 2017 American Camper Report, taking caution when lighting campfires can greatly minimize the chances of starting an out-of-control blaze.

“When camping or enjoying a fire outdoors, always make sure the fire is completely extinguished, including potential embers that could rise from the ashes and cause a threat,” said Marie D. Jones, author of “The Disaster Survival Guide: How to Prepare for and Survive Floods, Fires, Earthquakes and More.”

Jones noted that you should water down the fire or fire pit, even if the fire appears to be out. “Use a stick to dig up the ashes and make sure nothing is glowing,” she said.

It’s also a good idea never to use your outdoor fireplace or fire pit during dry, windy weather, as embers can easily spread.

“In my hometown of San Diego, wildfires are common and embers are almost as much of a problem as the actual fire of origin, especially during our windy, dry Santa Ana conditions,” Jones told AccuWeather. “Embers from one fire actually floated and caught the tops of palm trees on fire, spreading the wildfire further and further into residential areas.”

The American Red Cross recommends starting campfires or bonfires only in an appropriate fire pit that has been cleared of all vegetation and ringed by stones, and never leaving fires unattended, especially overnight.

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Experts also recommend making note of and reporting any potentially dangerous activities in your neighborhood that might lead to a wildfire, including carelessly discarded cigarettes and smoking materials or use of fireworks.

You can also request a home safety audit from your local fire department.

“The safest, easiest fire [that firefighters] will ever fight is the one that they prevent,” said Warren Burns, a regional practice leader with fire protection, security and life safety consulting company, Telgian Corporation.

“They will likely have reference material for you to take and study, and [they] may have a program to provide an inspection of your property for advice,” Burns told AccuWeather.

It’s also important to maintain a defensible space around your home and outbuildings, especially for people living in the wildland-urban interface. “Fire will use shrubbery, decorative trees and long grass as a bridge between the wildfire and your structures,” Burns said.

Be sure to follow these additional tips to prevent a wildfire from igniting.

Infographic - Tips for preventing wildfires

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