Firefighters: Meteorite did not cause Calif. house fire

A cause has not been determined, but crimes and space rocks have been ruled out, said Clayton Thomas, a captain with the Penn Valley Fire Protection District


By Ryan Sabalow
The Sacramento Bee

MOONEY FLAT, Calif. — A house that caught fire in rural Nevada County earlier this month didn’t get struck by a meteorite after all.

“I am very confident that a rock from space did not hit this house,” Clayton Thomas, a captain at the Penn Valley Fire Protection District, told The Sacramento Bee on Monday.

Penn Valley Fire Protection District crews responded to the fire that destroyed an 800-square foot home on a cattle ranch and killed a dog named Tug and two rabbits.
Penn Valley Fire Protection District crews responded to the fire that destroyed an 800-square foot home on a cattle ranch and killed a dog named Tug and two rabbits. (Photo/Penn Valley Fire Protection District)

Investigators have been investigating the cause of the Nov. 4 fire in Penn Valley’s Mooney Flat area after an 800-square foot home on a cattle ranch burned down that evening, killing a dog named Tug and two rabbits.

The fire became an international news story after witnesses described a flash of light and a loud explosion in the area. The home’s owner, Dustin Procita, told KCRA he felt an impact and went out to discover his front porch on fire.

Thomas, however, said that after examining the wreckage of the home, fire investigators found no evidence of a rock impacting the building — something that would have been obvious if it had been a large meteorite, given the explosion that witnesses said they heard.

“We are not looking at a meteor as a viable option at this point in time,” Thomas said.

The cause of the house fire still hasn’t been determined, but at this point, there’s no evidence a crime had occurred, Thomas said.

The home’s occupants, Procita and his wife, Jeanette, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

Family members started a GoFundMe fundraising account to collect money for the couple. The post says the couple didn’t have home owners insurance, and they lost everything but the “clothes on their backs.”

“Family is naturally helping as best we can, however, that will not be enough to cover all of the many expenses involved with such a disaster,” reads the GoFundMe page titled, “Dustin and Jeanette’s House destroyed by Meteorite.”

The couple is currently seeking a travel trailer to live in as a temporary dwelling, the post says. As of Monday, the fundraiser had raised $16,737.

Meteor experts had doubts

Experts had been skeptical that a meteorite had struck the building, let alone caused it to catch fire.

A flash of light from a large meteor hitting the atmosphere could be seen for hundreds of miles across Northern California that night.

But the estimated trajectory put it 200 miles away from the house in Penn Valley, said Robert Lunsford, the fireball report coordinator for the American Meteor Society, which tracks the phenomena commonly known as “shooting stars.”

Meteoroids are objects in space that range in size from dust to small asteroids. When they burn up in the atmosphere, they’re called meteors. When they actually hit the ground, they’re known as meteorites, according to NASA.

Lunsford said the odds are “astronomically small” for a meteorite to actually reach the ground. Almost all burn up as they hit the earth’s atmosphere while moving at speeds of up to 50 miles per second, causing the telltale streaks and flashes of light across the night sky.

Contrary to popular depictions in movies, meteorites are typically are smaller than a baseball and they are not very hot when they do manage to touch down, Lunsford said.

That’s because after surviving the impact with the atmosphere, they break into fragments, slow down substantially and must pass through frigid temperatures in the upper atmosphere in the miles-long plummet to earth.

The top layer of the rock might be hot on the surface for a short while on the ground, but it would cool down very quickly, said Qing-zhu Yin, a UC Davis professor who’s an expert on meteorites.

Lunsford said he’s been tracking meteors since 2005 and in all that time he’s only aware of one home being struck by a meteorite. It happened last year in Canada. A woman in British Columbia apparently slept through one crashing through her roof and landing beside her in her bed.

“But it obviously wasn’t hot enough to ignite the bedding on fire,” he said.

There have been other examples of meteorites hitting homes, but they usually just leave dents or poke small holes in the building, Yin said.

Yin wasn’t aware of any cases in which a home caught fire.

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