An Unusual Risk – Are Terrorists Lighting Forest Fires?

You can’t truly appreciate the malevolence of a fire until you’ve experienced one up close that directly threatens you and your possessions.

One of the positive features of a retreat location is proximity to timber.  Trees and their wood can be used for many things – as an energy source for heating and cooking and many other things (even as a source of wood gas or ‘producer gas’ to power vehicles).  And of course, they can also be used as a construction material for just about any type of construction project, or for outdoor fencing, and so on.

But there’s a downside to being close to a forest lands.  Forest fires.

No matter where we live, we probably have become quite used to what seems like an annual event where – particularly in California – home owners in the furthest out suburbs where suburbia ends and forest starts discover to their apparent shock and horror that their homes are at risk from forest fires.  We know this will happen, because we see it on television every year, even if we live thousands of miles away; but the home owners themselves appear to be taken by surprise.

It seems that the greatest amount of destroyed forest comes from fires started by lightning, but the greatest number of fires are started by people (interesting information here).

Now there’s not a lot that can be done to pre-emptively prevent lightning starting a forest fire (this is an understatement!).  And, alas, there’s not a lot that can be done about human stupidity, either, and most of the time, you can’t prevent everyone from accessing all forested lands.  Besides which, even if you can control access to your land, the problem and the vulnerability could be 10 or 20 miles away, and a fire that was started there could then travel to your land.

We also know that some fires are deliberately lit.  Arson is a known issue, but fortunately fairly rare.

However, there’s a new risk as well, which, it is speculated, may have interesting implications for the US.  Apparently Europe had many more than normal forest fires this year, and there is speculation (see this article) that some of them may have been deliberately started by Al Qaeda terrorists.

If there is any truth in this, there would be every reason to expect AQ to do such things in the US too.

Is the Impact of Human Started Fires as Big as it Seems?

One interesting thing to consider, and which many conservationists overlook, it that wildfires are natural and normal.  Fire is a standard part of the life cycle of forests, and it could even be argued, is essential and ‘good’.

Although conservationists begrudge every tree that is burned, no matter what the cause of the fire, there are a couple of other perspectives.  The first perspective is that if an area was not burned by a fire that was accidentally – or even deliberately – started by a person, then maybe it would have been started by lightning instead?  It is hard to know what percentage of the manmade forest fires are actually ‘extra’ forest fires, compared to merely being started by a person today rather than by a lightning bolt tomorrow.

The second perspective is that some people suggest if forest fires don’t regularly occur, there is an accumulation of more and more burnable material on the forest floor, which makes forest fires, when they inevitably do occur, more dangerous and helps them to spread further and faster.

Interfering with mother nature is seldom a good thing, and the ‘law of unintended consequences’ seems to consistently bring about unexpected (but never good) outcomes.

However, we make these comments merely to put the overall issue in broader context.  If you are potentially vulnerable to forest fires at your retreat location, you need to take active steps to minimize your vulnerability.

Implications for Preppers

Forest fires, including those started by terrorists, are not so much an ‘end of the world as we know it’ scenario, but rather an issue to keep in mind and something to anticipate/avoid if/when you find yourself in a Level 2/3 situation and needing to survive at your retreat for an extended period of time.

If your retreat is close to (or actually in) a forest, then you need to consider your fire protection strategies.  Even if your region has seldom been troubled by forest fires in the past, that’s no reliable predictor that an AQ operative with a can of petrol and a box of matches mightn’t pay your area a visit one summer soon.

It is also a possibility, in a Level 2 or 3 situation, that an ‘opposing force’ that wishes you harm (or which simply is jealous of your success and wishes to impact on it) may deliberately set fire to your forest lands, or use fire as a tool to force you out of your retreat.

You need to consider three things :

1.  Managing your forest lands to create fire-breaks so that you can localize any fires rather than risk losing every tree you have.

Because it can take 15 – 25 years to regrow a usable inventory of trees on any land, a fire that wipes out much of your inventory of trees doesn’t just give you a difficult time for the next year or two, but instead, it massively changes your resource inventory for a decade or two into the future.  You absolutely must ensure that any forest fire will not destroy your entire inventory of trees.

2.  Designing and developing your dwelling and other buildings so they are not just fire resistant but fire-proof, and landscaping around them to keep fires as far away as possible.

This should go without saying, but if I had a dollar for every retreat home I’ve seen built out of wood (and with a shake roof), I’d be a wealthy man indeed.  A true retreat needs to be designed and built for function, not for aesthetics.

3.  An air filtration system so that if the air around you gets contaminated by smoke from a fire you can still maintain a reasonably healthy atmosphere inside your main retreat.

Even a fire ten miles away can severely impact on your air quality, depending on winds and other atmospheric conditions.

This third point is perhaps the least understood of all.  We’ll write about it in greater detail in a separate article.


It is sensible to locate your retreat close to a forest.  The wood will be an invaluable resource in any level 2 or 3 situation.  But forests are vulnerable to forest fires, whether naturally caused by lightning, accidentally caused by stupid people, or deliberately started by terrorists or arsonists.

Part of planning your retreat is to be cognizant of the dangers posed to it by forest fires and to prepare as best you can so as to reduce the risk such inevitable (albeit hopefully rare) events may present to both you and your trees.

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