California experiences some of the most devastating wildfires in the country. In fact, the western hemisphere of the country is highly prone to fires due to several factors, including climate. 

The arid desert landscape, along with high winds and dry vegetation, makes California somewhat of an incendiary state. The annual Santa Ana winds bringing in high desert winds also contribute to the historically high incidence of wildfires. 

However, there is another distinguishing factor that, if controlled, could greatly reduce the number of devastating fires in the state, and that is the human factor. 

According to the Congressional Research Service, 89% of wildfires between 2018 and 2022 were caused by humans. 

Data by the National Interagency Fire Center shows that in 2020, 9543 California wildfires were human-caused; in 2021, 8704 wildfires were caused by humans; and 7589 in 2022. 

Human-caused wildfires are one of two categories, with nature, primarily lightning, being the second. Nature-caused fires tend to be larger; however, human-caused fires accounted for the destruction of over 270,000 acres in 2022 alone. 

It is important to note that the human-caused wildfire category is very broad and includes not only actions but also human-used tools and equipment. Wildfires caused by human actions are sometimes intentional, but most occur due to carelessness and failure to adequately extinguish fires. 

Here are some categories of human-caused wildfires, as stipulated by the National Interagency Fire Center. 

Human Action 

  • Arson: Arson is a deliberate act and a felony. It is the intentional setting of fires by individuals, either as an act of vandalism, revenge, or for other malicious motives.
  • Fireworks: Fireworks can cause wildfires when mishandled or defective. In addition to causing injuries to the user, the sparks can ignite surrounding vegetation and cause a fire.
  • Firearms and explosives: When firearms or explosives are used in areas that can easily ignite, such as areas with overgrown and dry vegetation, wildfires can occur.
  • Recreation such as campfires: Camping is a popular pastime in California; however, it is also a major contributor to wildfires, especially when campfires or outdoor cooking fires are not supervised or not extinguished properly.
  • Burning Debris: Failure to take adequate precautions when burning yard waste or other materials can lead to wildfires, especially in arid, windy conditions. 
  • Misuse of fire by minors: When children play with matches or try science experiments with magnifying glasses, it can unintentionally lead to fires.
  • Smoking: Failure to put out cigarettes or other tobacco products, especially ‘flicking’ lit cigarettes, can cause fires. 
  • Prescribed burning: Prescribed fires are intentionally lit fires used in land management or fire prevention. However, if not managed properly, it can spread beyond the contained area and lead to wildfires. 

Human Tools and Equipment 

In addition to human actions, tools and equipment also contribute to the high incidence of human-caused wildfires, including: 

  • Electric and Power Equipment and Systems: Electrical systems and equipment have been the cause of the most devastating California wildfires in recent history. Power lines and transformers that are improperly managed can cause sparks leading to fires, especially in areas of poorly maintained vegetation and arid and windy conditions. 
  • Vehicles: Hot exhaust systems or malfunctioning converters can spark and cause fires. 
  • Railway Operations: The friction from train wheels or brakes can cause sparks leading to fires, especially if they are near dry vegetation or other flammable objects. 
  • Power Tools and Machinery: Poorly maintained power tools and machinery can spark and cause wildfires. It is important to maintain such equipment properly and regularly. 
  • Electric Fences: Poorly maintained or faulty electric fences can cause sparks that ignite nearby dry vegetation. 

Wildfires caused by equipment and tools are preventable, but regular maintenance is required, as is taking precautions in fire-prone areas and following safety guidelines. 

Mitigating human-caused wildfires 

Only a small fraction of wildfires are started by intentional and malicious actions, and the majority of fires are the result of negligence and unawareness of the repercussions of unsafe actions. 

Encouraging wildfire prevention through awareness and encouragement of responsible behavior is a top priority for fire agencies around the country and can be paramount in reducing the incidence of deadly and devastating wildfires that impact communities. 

California continues to invest a significant amount of funds in wildfire mitigation, taking a multi-pronged approach towards empowering communities to do their part in preventing wildfires. 

Some initiatives include: 

  • Wildfire Prevention Planning 
  • Hazardous Fuel Reduction 
  • Prevention Education 
  • In addition, fire grants are made available to communities.

To learn more about California’s wildfire prevention and access educational material, please visit the Cal Fire resource page at

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