Wildfires are disturbingly easy to start. Either man or nature can cause one with little effort. Lightning strikes or the sun's heat can spark a fire, especially in dry conditions. Human carelessness also can start a wildfire - - including campfires, smoking, fireworks or improper trash burning. Some wildfires are set deliberately; others can be caused by just bad luck. A train wheel sparking on the track may be all it takes to start the flames. Wildfires can move quickly, as fast as 14 mph (23 kph).
Recorded history has seen its share of staggeringly destructive wildfires. Among the worst ever in North America was the Great Fire of 1910. That fire happened in Idaho and Montana, the result of severe winds, small fires and dry forests all combining to unleash fiery havoc over a two-day period. The wildfire destroyed some 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) and took the lives of 86 people. So great was its destruction -- in loss of land and human life -- that it prompted Congress to begin setting aside money to help the National Forest Service suppress fires [source: CNN].
On average, 5 million acres (2 million hectares) of U.S. land burn each year in wildfires. The wildfires clearly present a hazard to anything in their way, causing property damage and destruction. Yet some of the dangers of wildfires aren't felt until well after they're put out. If a wildfire burns away all the vegetation on a hill or mountain, it can weaken the organic content of the soil, making it harder for the soil to absorb water. This can lead to land erosion, which in turn can cause debris flow. Months after a fire, heavy rains can cause tons of rock, mud and other debris can speed down a burned-out mountain, creating another natural disaster.
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