Stupidity or bad luck causes most wildfires

Stupidity or bad luck causes most wildfires

9 December 2007

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USA — The good news about wildfires in California as a whole is that the vast majority of them are the result of knuckleheadedness or just bad luck, and not human malice.

But the bad news here in heavily-populated Orange County is that when it comes to wildfires, malice apparently plays a larger role.

According to wildfire statistics compiled by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, from 2000 to 2005 only 7 percent of wildfires under the department’s jurisdiction were intentionally set by arsonists. Lightning caused another 5 percent of the wildfires, while the causes of 27 percent of the fires were listed as “undetermined” or “miscellaneous.”

Of course, that doesn’t let humans off the hook as the primary cause of wildfires; it just means that most of the time they don’t set them intentionally. According to the survey, 2 percent of the fires were caused by smoking, 2 percent by “playing with fire,” 3 percent by campfires, 3 percent by power lines, 10 percent by debris burning, 14 percent by vehicles and 27 percent by “equipment use” such as sparks flying from power tools.

And just because the fires were started unintentionally doesn’t necessarily prevent the people who started them from facing civil or even criminal penalties. For example, according to news reports, two farm workers who accidentally started the 240,000-acre Zaca fire in Santa Barbara County this past summer while using a grinding tool to fix a water trough are now facing felony criminal negligence charges that could send them to prison.

Still, it’s at least a little reassuring to know that such a small percentage of wildfires statewide are intentionally set. What’s less reassuring is to note that in Orange County, where 3 million people are packed into what is often a tinderbox, arsonists are statistically a much bigger problem – and they’re really hard to catch.

As you know, the largest and most destructive wildfire in Orange County this year – the Santiago fire, which burned 28,000 acres and destroyed 15 homes in October – was caused by arson. A $250,000 reward has been posted for information leading to conviction of the arsonist.

According to Battalion Chief Devin Leonard, who oversees fire investigations for the Orange County Fire Authority – which provides fire services for 22 cities and all unincorporated county areas – investigators have received more than 1,200 tips since the fire. Although a few of them are clearly dead ends – people reporting something they saw in a dream, for example, or sending in sketches of what they imagine the arsonist looks like – some of them are solid leads. The problem is that it can take weeks and months to check them all out – and so far, there have been no arrests in the case.

Meanwhile, of half a dozen other “major incident” wildfires this year that are listed on the OCFA Web site, only three were considered “accidental.” The 140-acre Gypsum fire in May was caused by Caltrans workers using power tools – unlike the Santa Barbara case, that was considered an unavoidable accident – while another smaller fire was caused by arcing power lines, and yet another was caused by a piece of molten metal ejected from a vehicle’s malfunctioning catalytic converter.

Of the remaining three fires on the OCFA “major incident” list, two were caused by deliberate arson: The 2,000-acre 241-Windy Ridge fire in March, which started when someone torched a stolen car on the 241 toll road, and the 22-acre Crown Valley Fire in July. Another fire, the 3-acre Highlands fire in Laguna Niguel in June, was caused by someone shooting off fireworks in a dry, brushy area – which is so stupid that it qualifies under the law as a crime of reckless negligence.

According to Battalion Chief Leonard, the investigations into all three of those fires remain “very open and active.” He adds that, “We hope all of those cases (including the Santiago case) are going to wind up in a courtroom.”

And except for the arsonists, so does everybody else. But based on statistics, it’s not going to be easy. According to OCFA stats for 2006, out of about 2,100 fires handled by that agency – everything from stove fires to structure fires to wildfires – some 345 of them, or about 16 percent, were arson-caused. And of those arson fires, only 52 resulted in arrests.

So keep your eyes peeled during times of fire danger. And if you have any information on any arson fires, you can call the OCFA Arson Tip Line at 800-540-8282.

But remember, the arson investigators are pretty busy. So while they will welcome any legitimate tip, even if it seems insignificant, you might want to keep your dreams to yourself.

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