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Hidden danger: how one spark can cause a massive wildfire

Wind and Embers, the dangers of embers spreading wildfires
Wind and Embers, the dangers of embers spreading wildfires
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The Northstate has seen massive wildfires plaguing California this year and the state knows firsthand how quickly and how easily wildfires can spread. One of the major components that cause wildfires to spark and spread is embers.

Embers are fiery, small pieces of burning wood that fly in the air which may appear as harmless, however embers, also known as firebrands, can be significantly dangerous in intense conditions like wildfires.

"Embers play a significant role. Embers can lead to spotting or spot fires. When you have fires that are outside of the perimeter of the growing fire," said Kevin Osborne, Fire Ecologist with the Shasta Trinity National Forest.

"Fire spreads from two methods. The fire front moves across the landscape, transferring heat, and then it spots out in front of itself and starts new fires and it becomes part of the main fire or is contained as a spot fire. That second method, spotting, is produced by embers traveling away from the main body of the fire."

Osborne says there is a difference in magnitude between campfire embers and embers from a wildfire.

"When you’re burning small wood or in your fireplace, you’re just burning your logs. When you are talking about wildfire, you’re burning whole trees if you’re in a wildland area, or you’re in an interface setting, you’re burning buildings."

Some factors play a crucial role in how fast embers can travel, spreading spot fires that can lead to dangerous and deadly wildfires. Those factors depend on the size and material of the ember, the setting of where the ember is located, the wind strength, and where the embers land.

"The things that come off of [buildings and trees] are a wide range of sizes and shapes. And the travel distance is much greater for leaves, acorns, pinecones, chunks of bark," Osborne said. "The wind [factor] is either produced by the wind, the environment, or the fire itself can produce the wind, and transport these embers a long way."

Osborne says embers are the most dangerous and more likely to destroy homes and structures.

"In an urban interface setting, embers are the most dangerous part of the fire. The vast majority of homes that burn and wildfires are burned by ember showers, landing on or near the home and igniting some sort source," Osborne said.

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He suggested the most important action homeowners can take to keep their home safe against embers is the conduct proper screening, cleaning your gutter, and removing other flammable material away from your home.

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