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From pyrotechnics-gone-wrong to animal electrocution: The odder ways wildfires ignite

Smokey Bear was right about humans being able to prevent many wildfires


In this frame grab from a April 23, 2017, video provided by the U.S. Forest Service, is a gender reveal event in the Santa Rita Mountain’s foothills, more than 40 miles southeast of Tucson, Ariz. The explosion from the reveal ignited the 47,000-acre Sawmill Fire. Gender reveal parties with a blast of color, pink or blue, that were once considered private gatherings have become social media spectacles, sometimes with dangerous consequences.

U.S. Forest Service via AP

This fire season has been one of the most devastating ever seen all along the West Coast, from San Diego to Seattle. At one point, the second-, third- and fourth-largest wildfires ever experienced in California were happening simultaneously. One of those fires, the August Complex, has now surpassed them all to become the largest wildfire ever seen in California, surpassing those of the previous two years.

With dozens of active fires burning across the West Coast – and thousands of firefighters on the front lines – it’s natural to wonder: How on earth did they all start?

One fire, in particular, was blamed on pyrotechnics-gone-wrong at a gender-reveal party (and it’s not the first time one of these designed-to-be-joyous events has caused a wildfire). Most of the other fires have less-dramatic origins, but let’s consider the myriad ways wildfires ignite so we can better understand how we can focus on the right wildfire prevention messages within our communities.

Smokey Bear

Growing up, I remember the U.S. Forest Service signs and public service announcements prior to and during fire season utilizing Smokey Bear. Even today, along the highways near any of the National Forests, you can see the “Fire Threat” signs posted with a gauge reading Low to High, and usually with an image of Smokey Bear standing by it.

Smokey’s message has always been: “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires. Be careful with matches and campfires. Respect the forest, protect our trees. My friends depend on me!”

So, is Smokey correct? Are humans the cause of most of these wildland fires? Certainly, humans – and our lack of commonsense – attest to a large number of these fires.

“Stupid human tricks”

Let’s face it, human carelessness and, in some cases, downright stupidity account for many fires.

Discarded smoking materials – cigarettes, cigars and matches – are just what Smokey meant in his message. Then there are the “recreational” causes, such as unattended or abandoned campfires.

Hikers have had their share of woes, too. A few years ago, one hiker who had been lost for several days in Arizona decided to clear an area and light a signal fire. She was found, but the winds also spread the fire and ultimately burned several homes.

Another pair of hikers in Idaho stopped for a call of nature, and being environmentally conscience, decided to burn the toilet paper and its contents – only once again the resulting fire couldn’t be contained before it burned a large area of the wildland.

In addition to the previously noted pyrotechnic disaster during a gender-reveal party, there are other wildfire causes that can be attributed to good intentions, like the candle-lit lanterns used for celebrations or memorials that are released into the sky to float on the winds – and subsequently, land in rugged brush or forest areas with fires are the predictable result.

As an aside, during the World War II, Japan successfully launched oversized weather balloons strapped with incendiary devices from their homeland with the intent to cause massive forest fires along the West Coast of the United States. They were successful, but because of the strict news censorship during that war, government officials in the United States never reported or acknowledged these fires or their devastation, and the Japanese ceased the idea, believing they were unsuccessful.

Video released by the USDA Forest Service shows the moment the Sawmill Fire was ignited on April 23, 2017. The blaze began after Dennis Dickey, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of U.S. Forest Service regulations, shot a target that contained Tannerite during a gender reveal party. The fire eventually spread to the Coronado National Forest. The fire caused damage more than 45,000 acres of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the State of Arizona, the Bureau of Land Management, and various private landholders. Officials estimate total losses to be over $8 million. In his plea agreement, Dickey agreed to a sentence of five years probation. Additionally, Dickey must make a public service announcement with the U.S. Forest Service about the cause of the Sawmill Fire.

Transportation trouble

Back in the day, sparks from the hot brakes of railroad cars would ignite brush fires. These are far less frequent now than when there were steam locomotives that used to routinely spew small bits of flaming coal or coke along the tracks, literally causing a string of fires.

More recently, motorcycles or ATVs driven along the underbrush are the issue, when a hot muffler or backfire is enough to start a fire. Further, for many years, vehicles with catalytic converters were noted to overheat and cause not only the vehicle to catch fire, but quickly spread to the underbrush.

Animals have issues, too

Don’t tell Smokey, but animals can cause wildfires, too. Small animals, such as squirrels, are often the culprits when they cross paths with two high-voltage electric lines on transmission poles. Their electrocution is instantaneous, but their flaming carcass can easily fall to the ground and ignite nearby foliage.

And its not just smaller animals, mountain lions have been known to use utility poles as perches to spot their next prey. While they are very methodical in their hunting methods, mountain lions have also been known to cross two lines at the same time and receive the identical fate as the much smaller squirrels.

Spontaneous combustion

Believe it or not, spontaneous combustion has also been known to cause wildfires. Usually these are from wet haystacks or compost piles that heat the hay or vegetation while drying out. Hay can ignite if the internal core reaches as little as 130 degrees F. At that temperature, it begins to off-gas a flammable vapor that can easily ignite and spread to nearby surroundings.

Mother Nature

At the end of the day, the ultimate fire culprit is Mother Nature.

Lightning strikes in the tens of thousands and notoriously high winds in September and October, known as the Santa Anas, cause or quickly spread these fires on the West Coast. The winds are known to blow down power lines in remote rugged areas and, together with lightning, cause most wildfires.

Wildfire prevention messages

Whether you live in a wildland-urban interface area, or like me, just like to visit our national forests, protecting these natural treasures from fire should be on all our minds. It’s essential that we always know the fire threat – what is allowed and what is prohibited, even in campgrounds.

It’s also essential for those of us in the fire service to spread the word about these wildfire dangers within our communities so the citizens understand their role in preventing fires.

Consider creating wildfire prevention messages focused on some of these human-caused fires, like discarded smoking materials and campfires, to show people that they really can prevent wildfires, just like Smokey has been saying for 70 years.

We must get this right to help protect firefighter and civilian lives. Plus, I don’t want to ever see Smokey’s bad side.

Editor’s Note: What’s the strangest way you know that’s started a wildfire? Share in the comments below.

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.