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Wildfire terminology can sometimes be confusing. What is the difference between “contained” and “controlled”? Learn more about wild fire fighting terms and how to deal with fires.

It’s wildfire season again, and the threat of wild burns is hard upon us. If you live in or near woodland or prairie, travel to, visit or vacation in woodlands or parklands, it is absolutely your responsibility to take care with any open flame or fire. You would be — will be—horrified at just how quickly one little campfire or neglectful mistake involving an open flame can get out of hand. Dry, breezy weather is the perfect condition for a wildfire; be extra careful in those conditions.

If you accidentally start a wildfire and you cannot put it out within 15 minutes, then you have an out-of-control wildfire on your hands. Do not panic and do not shirk your responsibility! Make sure that you and all members of your party are accounted for and are upwind of the fire. As soon as possible, call the local fire department or the emergency number — if you don’t have a mobile telephone, go to the nearest house or town. If you have a GPS (global positioning system) unit or map, use those references to direct the authorities to the sight of the fire’s original starting point.

Don’t even think about ducking out of your responsibility. What has happened, has happened. The point of the exercise is to protect lives— because that is what is now at stake! If you don’t report a wildfire right away, you are endangering lives. Local residents, other campers, tourists and visitors and especially the firefighters are going to have their lives at risk. Your job is to help everyone control that fire — anything less is simply murder.

Wildfires have a lifecycle, and professional wild firefighters know about them and can control them. You’ve probably heard, and wondered about, some of the terms used on radio and television reports. The most often heard terms are the names of fires and the terms “contained” and “controlled.” Here’s how it works:

Names of fires:

Wildfires are treated as independent, discrete incidents. They’re “born,” “live” and “die” as individual things. Each time a wildfire is declared (that is, an authorized wildfire-fighting agency has decided that a wildfire is out of control and needs to be contained), it is given a name. This name is usually taken from the nearest named location to the fire’s origin — a town, a mountain, a lake or other geographical locator.


When reports of a fire state that they are x-percent contained, it refers to the control line which is being established by firefighters around the fire. So, a wildfire that is considered “85% contained” means that firefighters have established a boundary which can reasonably be expected to stop the fire — that means that the fire shouldn’t reasonably be able to “jump” across the line — and keep it from spreading.


To control a fire involves both the boundary and the interior area of the fire. Just because a fire area is contained doesn’t mean that it is controlled: There may be “islands” within the fire zone that are not burned, but can yet be saved. So, you may even hear that a fire is “85% contained, but 40% controlled.” This means that the firefighters can reasonably be sure that the fire can’t spread to new areas, but there is still a lot of work to do within the fire zone. Hot spots have to be cooled down, to prevent future immediate threats to the containment line and to save still unburnt islands within the fire zone.

Wild lands, both parks and private, are a joy to visit and see. It is our responsibility to take care of them. If, by chance or neglect, you accidentally start a wildfire, it is your responsibility to help in any way you can to stop, contain and control that fire. Don’t risk your life or the lives of others unnecessarily, but do take positive steps to save lives by reporting the fire as soon as possible.

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