Types of Disasters and Their Consequences

American Public Health Association 

In This Article


More and more people are building their homes in woodland settings in or near forests, rural areas, or remote mountain sites. As residential areas expand into relatively untouched wildlands, these communities are increasingly threatened by forest fires. Protecting structures in the wildland from fire poses special problems, and can stretch firefighting resources to the limit. Wildfires often begin unnoticed. They spread quickly, igniting brush, trees, and homes.

There are three different classes of wildfires. A "surface fire" is the most common type and burns along the floor of a forest, moving slowly and killing or damaging trees. A "ground fire" is usually started by lightning and burns on or below the forest floor in the human layer down to the mineral soil. "Crown fires" spread rapidly by wind and move quickly by jumping along the tops of trees. Depending on prevailing winds and the amount of water in the environment, wildfires can quickly spread out of control causing extensive damage to personal property and human life. If heavy rains follow a fire, other natural disasters can occur, including landslides, mudflows, and floods. Once ground cover has been burned away, little is left to hold soil in place on steep slopes and hillsides. A major wildland fire can leave a large amount of scorched and barren land and these areas often do not return to prefire conditions for decades. If the wildland fire destroyed the ground cover, then erosion becomes one of several potential problems. Danger zones include all wooded, brush, and grassy areas—espe-cially those in Kansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, Tennessee, California, Massachusetts, and the national forests of the western United States.

Morbidity and mortality associated with wildfires include burns, inhalation injuries, respiratory complications, and stress-related cardiovascular events (exhaustion and myocardial infarction from fighting or fleeing the fire).

More than four out of every five wildfires are started by people. Negligent human behavior, such as smoking in forested areas or improperly extinguishing campfires, is the cause of many forest fires. Another cause of forest fires is lightning. Prevention efforts include working with the fire service to educate people to:

  • Build fires away from nearby trees or bushes. Ash and cinders lighter than air float and may be blown into areas with heavy fuel load, starting wildfires.

  • Be prepared to extinguish the fire quickly and completely. If the fire becomes threatening, someone will need to extinguish it immediately.

  • Never leave a fire—even a burning cigarette—unattended. Fire can quickly spread out of control.

  • Encourage the development of a family wildfire evacuation plan if the area in your community is at risk for wildfire.


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