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A wildfire is an uncontrolled fire in an area of combustible vegetation that occurs in the countryside or rural area.

DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry is responsible for protecting the commonwealth’s 17 million acres of public and private wildlands from damage by wildfire. This is accomplished by a combination of:

  • Wildfire prevention
  • Preparedness
  • Suppression
  • Investigation

The bureau works with fire wardens and volunteer fire departments to promote the latest advances in fire prevention and suppression.

Pennsylvania wildland firefighters also fight blazes throughout the nation.

Wildfires in Pennsylvania

The greatest danger of wildfires in Pennsylvania is during the spring months of March, April, and May, and the autumn months of October and November. In Pennsylvania, 98 percent of our wildfires are caused by people.

Certain conditions are necessary for a wildfire to occur:

  • An available fuel source, such as grasslands or fields
  • Dry conditions, including the fuel source
  • An ignition source -- some way for the fire to start

The first two factors occur most frequently in Pennsylvania during the spring and autumn. As the spring sun climbs higher in the sky, days become longer and warmer. The trees are bare during this time allowing the sunlight to reach the forest floor, warming the ground and drying last fall’s leaves.

This, coupled with the fact that the winds in the spring are often very strong and dry, leads to a tremendous amount of fuel ready to burn. During the fall, the leaves turn color and begin to fall, accumulating in a deep fluffy layer that creates a fire hazard.

The third factor -- ignition source -- also occurs during these periods.

One of the major causes of forest fires in Pennsylvania is debris burning. A careless person burning accumulated trash can be responsible for causing thousands of acres of valuable Pennsylvania forests to burn. These fires most frequently start in someone’s backyard and travel through the dead grass and weeds into the bordering woodlands.

Of course, wildfires can occur during any month, at any time of the day, destroying valuable woodlands and wildlife habitat, and threatening human lives, homes, and buildings.

While media often give more coverage to spectacular western wildfires, more fires occur east of the Mississippi River than west.

Wildfire Prevention

Homeowners can review these tips on reducing the risk of wildfire (PDF).   

Debris burning is the most common cause of wildfires in Pennsylvania. Check with your township for burn bans and local ordinances on debris burning.

Wildfire prevention is a message brought to people across the country by the well-known figure Smokey Bear. Detailed information about wildfire prevention as well as materials for kids and educators is on the Smokey Bear website

Reducing the Risks of Wildfire

Census figures for the first decades of the 21st century show more people in the Northeastern U.S. moving from suburban to rural areas to make their home near or within the forest. Firefighters call the area where homes and development meet and intermingle with undeveloped wildland the “wildland-urban interface.”

Pennsylvania has a higher percentage of homes in the wildland-urban interface than any other state in the nation.

People moving into the wildland urban interface often make choices that increase the potential for their homes to be destroyed by wildfire. With more people there is increased risk of fires caused by:

  • Debris burning
  • Equipment use
  • Smoking
  • Campfires
  • Arson

Firewise Communities

In the wildland urban interface, it is especially important to properly plan new housing areas and to develop good standards for existing ones. Planning for wildland fire protection considers:

  • Local fire codes
  • Roofing materials
  • Landscaping
  • Road placement

Firewise communities reduce risk of fire emergencies by addressing and correcting fire hazards. Municipalities can participate in the Pennsylvania Firewise Medal Community program (PDF).