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I was out exploring and I ran into an area where all the trees were burning--the leaves were gone, it was trunk pieces that will never burn up.

Now, I have had a wildfire get out of hand some time ago but I don't think it burned anywhere near this area and there are plenty of unburned trees between my wildfire and this patch.

Do wildfires happen on their own?

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@badp: No. This was far from home, I had never been there and I wasn't carrying anything except a few plants I had harvested on my trip. –  Loren Pechtel Feb 26 '11 at 4:32
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I didn't put it there as a duplicate link, but as a link to a related question :) –  badp Feb 26 '11 at 7:56
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2 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

As you explored, you triggered a chunk to be created. Minecraft decided to put a lava fall in that chunk. The lava spread on the ground. The trees became close enough to catch fire as a result and the fire quickly spread out...

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This has become more common lately since the change that let you find lava on the surface with pretty good regularity. –  Raven Dreamer Feb 26 '11 at 0:42
    
I sure didn't see any lava but I didn't explore the whole burn zone carefully. There could have been a lava block hiding on the far size of it. It certainly wasn't a fall unless it was falling into a cave. –  Loren Pechtel Feb 26 '11 at 4:34
    
The (outdated) single player commands mod (SPC) had a command to extinguish all fires. This helped me out sometimes before my wooden house burnt up. –  fjdumont Feb 26 '11 at 10:16
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Now with the weather, lightnings can hit a tree and start a fire. But it's rare because the rain will extinguish it.

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