According to the active fire made on the USDA forest service website, dozens of large wildfires are burning across 13 western states. The whole thing has a very-2020 feel to it, but 2020 was only keeping up the trend. Six of the worst fire seasons in the last 50 years have all occurred since 2000. Though 2015 was the worst year on record in America for wildfires, in general, wildfire season is only getting worse, in terms of both numbers of fires but even more so acres burned. And things aren’t likely to get better in any kind of hurry. 4.5 million U.S. homes were identified at high or extreme risk of wildfire, with half of those in California alone. According to the Insurance Information Institute, as many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by people. Today’s episode could have been part of our infrequent WCHNT series. Debris-burning kindles the most human-caused fires, followed by arson, equipment use (which includes power lines and substations, which burned more acres than any other cause in California in 2015 and the source of the fires that ransacked Wine Country and killed 10 people in 2017, campfires and kids playing with fireworks/matches. The remaining 10 percent are started by lightning and…can you guess…I’ll give you ten seconds to guess [game show music] lava. Did you get it? Shout out on the social media (urls) if you did and I’ll send you some stickers. [Smokey the bear clip]
A seasonal firefighter from Arizona has pleaded guilty to charges of starting the Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2002. He confessed that he has ignited these so-called ‘wildfires’ in hope that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs will hire him as a quick-response fire crew. The Rodeo-Chediski fire is two different sets of wildfires in two different locations in Arizona. However, dry vegetation and wind have caused the two bushfires to combine into one disastrous wildfire. In the end, it took almost a month to kill the wildfire and has damaged about 469,000 acres of forest land. Since the damaged area was so huge, restoration did not come cheap. Ecosystem resources were destroyed and the water cycle within the area was severely disrupted. The government had to put in the effort to drop more than 20,000 tonnes of grass seeds, winter wheat, and other seedlings. This is to help speed up recovery and stimulate the restoration of damaged vegetation within the area.
The Cedar Fire was a massive, highly-destructive wildfire, which burned 273,246 acres (1,106 km2) of land in San Diego County, California, during October and November 2003. Investigators determined that the fire was started by Sergio Martinez of West Covina, California, a novice hunter who had been hunting in the area and had become lost. Martinez initially told investigators that he had fired a shot from his rifle to draw attention and that the shot had caused the fire, but he later recanted and admitted he started the fire intentionally to signal rescuers. After gathering sticks and brush together, Martinez lit the brush and quickly lost control of the fire because of the heat, low humidity and low moisture content of the surrounding vegetation. Martinez was charged in federal court on October 7, 2004 with setting the fire and lying about it. In November 2005, a federal judge sentenced Martinez to six months in a work-furlough program and ordered him to complete 960 hours (40 days) of community service. He also was sentenced to five years’ probation and to pay $9,000 in restitution. As part of the plea bargain, prosecutors dropped the charge of lying to investigators.
Smoking as a stray spark source isn’t as common as it used to be, but it’s still in the top five. The discarded butts of a South Dakota woman ultimately burned 83,000 acres in 2000 (7% of the Black Hills National Forest). She didn’t just toss it out her car window, which is bad enough; she’d pulled off the road to pee on the roadside. She could have dropped her ciggie in the puddle she’d just made, but no, she had to drop it on the dry grass, watched the grass catch alight, got in her car…and drove away. On the plus side, she won’t be far from a toilet next time she needs one, as she’ll be in prison for two decades. Isn’t that a bit harsh? you ask. She also copped to setting three fires on purpose in Wyoming.
A homeowner doing the wiring for his new hot tub started a 76,000 acre fire, the third most destructive in California history when it happened in 2015. Next time, just spring for the electrician. A pair of Oregon homeowners insisted on mowing their lawn when the county had forbidden mowing during the day, along with most typical fire hazards like campfires and fireworks. The resulting fire burned 25,000 acres. The homeowners, a senior couple, were initially only given small fines for the mowing, but officials later sent them a larger bill…$37 million, the cost to battle the blaze. They could have learned from the tale of a California man a decade before, who got four years in prison for a fire that destroyed 80 homes and 11,000 acres. Ya know, I realized the other day, I’ve never used a lawn mower. Most of my adult life, I raised goats, who worked on the grass in the yard a bit. Also, I didn’t care if the yard was overgrown. Still don’t. The hubs, on the other hand, has both a riding mower and, not a word of a lie, a scythe. Gonna party like it’s 1399.
While the 2002 Rodeo Fire was moving through the Arizona desert, a local woman got stranded in her car after running out of gas. In an attempt to get the attention of a news helicopter covering the wildfire that Gregg started, Vallinda Jo Elliot started a fire of her own. Although Elliot was rescued, the Chedeski Peak Fire she lit eventually met with the Rodeo Fire and wiped out 467 homes and 470,000 acres. An equally easy to identify incediarius was an “influencer” who thought a fire would really engage his followers. In 2016, Johnny Mullins started a fire in Kentucky and went live on Facebook to describe it to the audience, like an actual reporter live on the scene. Firefighters arrived a short time later and put it out. Mullins was charged with second-degree arson. The news seems to have lost interest after his indictment, but every article I did find describes him as “an aspiring weatherman,” so I will too, though I’m thinking that ship has sailed now.
A lot of relationships end badly, leaving a swath of collateral damage in their wake. We’ve all been there. But I bet none of your break-ups ever resulted in six deaths and the largest wildfire in your state’s history. Or maybe it did; I don’t know your life. In June 2002, the Hayman Fire, named for a mining ghost town near Tappan Gulch, about smack-dab in the middle of Colorado. When then-Governor Bill Owens returned from flying over the region, he told reporters, “It looks as if all of Colorado is burning today.” The fire resulted directly in the death of one civilian from a fatal asthma attack and five firefighters. It also took a toll to the tune of $39.1 million in suppression costs and total private property losses valued at $40.4 million. While the fire burned, record amounts of particulate matter were measured in the air and after the fire was all done and dusted, the area was now susceptible to flooding, which washed out many roads and bridges, including State Highway 67. Oh, and the floods washed so much sediment into the reservoir that provides drinking water for Denver that it cost another $25mil to remove it. And of course, tourism in the national and state parks dropped precipitously, costing the region further money. Local businesses were estimated to have lost 50% of their seasonal revenues.
So who was the ignorant, arrogant, or malicious miscreant behind it all? Of all people, a forestry technician with the U.S. Forest Service is to blame. Terry Barton ignored a total burn ban and set a fire in a campfire ring. “Well,” the devil’s advocate would say, “she must have had a legitimate reason.” To her, maybe. Barton told federal investigators that she was attempting to burn a letter from her estranged husband. Her own teenage daughters testified that Barton was actually burning a letter in which she’d written out her feelings about her collapsed marriage. Locals had other theories. Some accused her of starting a fire in CO, so she could stay closer to home to be with her children during the summer, rather than being called away to CA or AZ. That sort of thing isn’t a completely blue-sky left-field idea: In 2002, seasonal firefighter Leonard Gregg started a brush fire on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, in hopes that the wildfire would help him land a full-time job on their quick-response fire crew. I’m not sure what phase 2 of the plan was. What Leonard got, was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Investigators also speculated that Barton started the fire so she could be a hero for putting it out and saving the forest. That old chestnut. Regardless of why the fire started, it quickly spread across four different counties. Colorado counties are sprawling; the fire damaged over 138,000 acres (560 km2). A federal grand jury indicted Barton on four felony counts of arson and she pled guilty to setting fire to federal forest land and lying to investigators. The judge sentenced her to six years in federal prison, but declined to impose the $14 million restitution the prosecution asked for. In state court, Barton was sentenced to 12 years in prison to run concurrently with the 6-year federal sentence, but the state sentence was overturned on appeal. The appellate court declared the presiding judge had “the appearance of prejudice” because he’d left his home for a single night due to the smoke from the Hayman fire. Despite all the hours I spent watching Law & Order, I won’t claim to know how change of venue actually works, but it seems like you’d have to be tried clear across the state to avoid a judge or jury who weren’t affected. A third judge sentenced Barton to 15 years of probation and 1,000 hours community service. Several insurance companies filed a $7 million suit against the government in the fall of 2008, claiming that Barton was negligent in her duties as a forest service employee. The judge in that case ruled that the government was not responsible for Barton’s actions because she was acting as an angry spouse and not as a government worker. Somewhere in the course of all these court appearances, the $14 million restitution was ordered, which Barton is paying off at $150 a month. Even if no interest is involved, at that rate, it will take Terry Barton 7,778 years to pay it off.
Even though only a portion of the money spent to control these mammoth fires could ever be recovered, restitution orders have become more common over the years. A teenager in Oregon setting off firecrackers accidentally started a wildfire so large that ash fell near the Canadian border. The firecracker ignited a bushfire that took more than three months to contain and at one point trapping hundreds of hikers, who were thankfully rescued with no casualties. The judge in his case seemed ready to slap the 15 year old with a $40 million bill for restitution, but admitted that might not be a practical solution, so instead sentenced him to 1,900 hours of community service, five years in probation, and start making payments after 10 years, giving him time to get set up in his adult life.
The Wallow Fire, named for the Bear Wallow Wilderness area where it originated, burned 840 square miles across Arizona and New Mexico. Cousins Caleb and David Malboeuf pled guilty to charges that they accidentally started the Wallow Fire the summer of 2011, when they left a smoldering campfire. For starting the largest wildfire in Arizona’s history, a judge ordered them to pay $3.7 million in restitution, at $500 a month, which will first be paid out to people who lost their homes and didn’t have homeowners insurance. Join me in my weary, unsurprised anger that the distribution schedule the court set up doesn’t include any restitution going to the San Carlos or White Mountain Apache Tribe.
Forest fires come at a high price for everyone, in financial cost, lost property, and lost lives. The Esperanza fire cost one more life than most. The fire was set intentionally by a man named Raymond Lee Oyler, a fitting name for a serial killer, and was spread by his unwitting accomplice, the Santa Anna winds. The fire was started on October 26, 2006, and burned an estimated 40,200 acres (163 km²) west of Palm Springs, CA in just three days. There were reports that smoke from the fire could be smelled as far away as San Diego. The fire damaged state Rt 243, destroyed dozens of buildings, including a building called the Octagon house, that five firefighters died trying to protect. The firefighters were overwhelmed when the winds shifted and blew the fire towards them. To give you a sense of how quickly it happened, two of the firefighters died next to their firetruck, not having enough time to get inside between reaching it and succumbing. Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Riverside County and ordered flags at the California Capitol to be flown at half-staff.
Several government and private agencies, everyone from a logging magnate to the Payómkawichum tribe donated to the over-half-million dollar reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist(s). Less than a week later, the Sheriff’s Homicide Unit arrested Raymond Oyler for setting two wildfires in the summer of 2006. According to prosecutor Michael Hestrin, “Inside his car, authorities found a wig, latex gloves, cigarettes, black spray paint and a partially burned slingshot that Hestrin said was used to launch incendiary devices into the brush. His DNA was found on two cigarette butts used in other nearby wildfires. … Oyler’s girlfriend told police that he had bragged about setting fires and had complained that they weren’t big enough. She threatened to leave him if he didn’t stop, so he quit for six months” Oyler was charged with almost two dozen counts of arson and 17 counts of setting fires with an incendiary device. Each fire was relatively small, but wind and dry under bush helped them combine together, like a criminally lethal Voltron. The jury found Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, guilty on 42 of 45 counts against him, including five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device to start fires. As of this report, Oyler is still on death row.
We’ve got a good handle on the what, so let’s look at the why. Why are we having more and more wildfires? In addition to climate change –rising temperatures means winter snow melts up to four weeks sooner and summer droughts are longer and more severe– the reason wildfires are getting harder to fight is because we fought too many wildfires. To help that make sense, we need to journey back to 1910 and a fire so large, it was called The Big Burn. The name didn’t need to be any more specific; no other fire in living memory could come close. It burned three million acres –that’s like the better part of the state of Connecticut or slightly more of the country of Kosovo reduced to cinder and ash– and it killed enough timber to fill a freight train 2,400mi/3800km long.
1910 was the driest year anyone could remember. It hardly seemed to rain at all that spring. Small fires were bursting to life all over, thanks to homesteaders, logging, camping, a particularly bad night of dry lightning, that being lightning without rain, that July, and the single biggest contributor, the railroad. Embers carried on the smoke from trains is estimated to have started over 100 fires that year alone. Those small fires began joining together and gaining strength. By the third week of August, the fire raged across three million acres of untouched timberland in northern Idaho and western Montana. The fire was whipped up by strong winds, created by the fire. When the hot air rises away from the flames, it creates a vacuum near the ground that surrounding air rushes in to fill, thus creating strong winds. Wildfires can even make their own lightning under the right circumstances. The fire was able to ride the wind across half-mile/800m canyons. The winds reached hurricane-force, blowing full-grown trees over like dominoes. The trees still standing in the inferno were prone to exploding as the water inside boiled and built up steam pressure before the outside had burnt through to release it. The smoke blacked out the sun as far north as Saskatoon, as far south as Denver, and was even noticeable as far east as Watertown, New York.
The entire town of Wallace, ID was burnt to the ground. The women, children, and the elderly or infirm were evacuated by train, while all able-bodied men were told to help fight the fire. 86 people, most of them firefighters, died in the Big Burn. One firefighter to survive was Ranger Edward Pulaski. He and his men hid in an old mine shaft, covered with wet blankets, when the fire cut off all other escape. I say “his men,” but it was really only about a quarter of the men he’d begun the day with. We know his name today largely because he campaigned for a monument to the fallen fighters of the Big Burn and the pulaski firefighting tool. Until relatively recently in mankind’s sometimes chaotic relationship with fire, firefighting tools were whatever you had on hand and they often did the job as well as you’d expect from improvised tools. Enter the pulaski. Picture a fireman’s ax, but instead of the sharp point on the back, it has something like a stretched-out hoe blade or the old-timey woodworking tool called an adz. Firefighters can chop down trees with the axe side and dig trenches and cut away roots with the adz end. While there is debate as to whether Ed Pulaski refined the tool from existing ones or it was named after him to honor his service, the pulaski is a handy tool that’s still in use today. The design remains basically unchanged –if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it– though there is also a super pulaski, which is longer and beefier.
Following the Big Burn, the Forest Service enacted policies with a singular zero-tolerance focus: put out all fires. The Forest Fires Emergency Act in 1908 authorized nearly limitless spending for fire suppression and in 1935, the 10 A.M. Policy took effect. This dictated that any and all fires must be contained and controlled by 10 o’clock the morning after they are reported. For a time, everything was going gang-busters and it reinforced the thoroughly colonizer mindset that white men have to jump in and control things that were getting by just fine on their own. You see, fires happen. Fires have always happened. And like everything else in nature, they serve a purpose. Every five to 25 years, it’s estimated, natural fires in forest burn leaf litter and smaller understory plants, preventing a build-up of vegetation on the forest floor. Because that vegetation is burned while it is still in relatively small quantities, the forest fires are themselves smaller and shorter-lived. They tend not to reach the high canopies of trees and the forest survives. The new, tender plant growth after the fire, fed in part by the carbon of the burned plants, would draw the animals back to the area and before long, bob’s your uncle, the forest is its old self again.
Then we showed up. And by “we,” I mean what George Carlin self-identified as “whitey, the blue-eyed devil, paddy-o, fay gray boy, honkey, mother-fucker.” “Fire bad!” we declared. For a time, things seemed to be going our way and there were fewer fires. Then a trend began to emerge. There might have been fewer fires, but the fires that didn’t fall to the 10 AM policy were getting bigger and bigger with each passing year. Picture an average house with an average amount of stuff that gets cleaned with average frequency. A fire would be bad –trust me, I’m an expert– but you’d be able to get out and the fire department could still save the house. Now picture any episode of Hoarders. Imagine if one of those houses caught fire. Without the regular small fires to clean house, there was beaucoup fuel to help fires grow and spread. Thanks to the build-up of dead plants on the forest floor and taller young plants, the fires can also reach the canopy, killing trees that might otherwise have survived and using them as fuel to burn even hotter.
It took us 40 years to figure it out and abandon the 10 A.M. Policy. Since then, the Forest Service has focused its efforts on fighting fires that threatened human life and property, the non-stop expansion of which is also part of the problem, while permitting naturally not directly threatening us to burn naturally. Prescribed burns, often done in the wetter parts of the year, are used in imitation of the periodic small fires, to thin out potential fuel sources. Provided the EPA doesn’t ban the burns because of the smoke they produce violating the Clean Air Act, or there’s an endangered species living in the area, or public protests because they don’t understand that we are literally fighting fire with fire. But we may be trying to dig our way out of too big a hole. Between 1960 and 1999, wildfires destroyed nearly 141 million acres of land in the United States. Between 2000 and 2013, nearly 161 million acres were consumed by wildfires — more in 13 years than in the previous 40 years, combined.
And that’s… The gender reveal party –which in this reporter’s opinion is a megalomaniacal attempt to get yet more presents out of friends and family– is credited to a colorful cake that started the trend, made by Myers Karvunidis in 2008. What’s her hot take? According to her Facebook page, High Gloss and Sauce. “Stop it. Stop having these stupid parties. For the love of God, stop burning things down to tell everyone about your kid’s penis. No one cares but you.” I couldn’t agree more. If gender colors matter, which they don’t, just paint the nursery purple, green, or yellow and have done with it. Thanks….