USA–– For many decades, the practice of lighting fires in wildlands to clear brush, improve browse, or to create jobs for fire crews was virtually a prerogative of rural living. For the most part, nobody got hurt and nobody went to jail.
In the past decade, however, as a more urban-oriented population has spread into previously wild lands, the toll in lost lives and property from wildfire arson has mounted and tolerance for the practice has turned to outrage. Today, anyone who starts a wildland fire, whether its done deliberately or through negligence, faces the possibility of a huge fine, a jail term or even in extreme cases the death penalty.
In Southern California this summer, a jury convicted Rickie Lee Fowler — whose own lawyer described him as despicable — of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson for setting the 2003 Old Fire in San Bernardino County. The jury next must decide whether to recommend the death penalty. The Fowler case is only the latest example of the trend toward stiffer punishments. In part, the movement is fueled by hotter, bigger and more destructive fires: but the key element is the expansion of the wildland-urban interface, which brings more people into contact with previously wild lands and almost inevitably with fire.
Human-caused wildfires have increased in number right along with the expansion of the interface, though reliable figures are hard to come by. There are as many as 120,000 wildland fires a year nationwide, and arson probably accounts for about 10 percent of them. According to arson investigators, only about 10 percent of wildfire arson cases are prosecuted, though a single prosecution may account for a string of fires. The problem is deadly serious: In California alone, 13 people died from confirmed or suspected arson wildfires in the first decade of the new century.
The Fowler case is an unusual one, because all five victims died of heart attacks, one of them a week after being evacuated from the fire, and also because Fowler has a lengthy record of violent crimes: He is already serving a 75-year-to-life sentence for jailhouse sodomy.
The imposition of the death penalty for wildland arson has a precedent, one linked to another Southern California fire. In 2009, Raymond Oyler, convicted of five counts of first-degree murder for setting the Esperanza Fire of 2006, was the first person ever to be sentenced to death for wildfire arson. That blaze wiped out a five-man Forest Service engine crew sent to fight the fire: There was no reason for the crew to be where they were, on an exposed ridge face, except to defend a few scattered homes.
By contrast, a California grand jury refused even to indict a man on second-degree murder charges, even though hed confessed to setting the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire, which killed 15 firefighters. Stan Pattan, son of a respected Forest Service engineer, had not intended to kill anyone, people said, and had set the blaze only to find work on the fire crew. He did land a job serving breakfast, but his behavior caused an arson detective to become suspicious and led to his arrest. Pattan served three years in San Quentin on felony charges of willful burning.
Before Oylers case, perhaps the most notorious modern wildfire arsonist was Terry Lynn Barton, a seasonal Forest Service employee. Barton admitted setting the 2002 Hayman Fire, at that time the largest in Colorados history, which destroyed 133 houses, burned 38,114 acres, and forced the evacuation of more than 5,000 people. Barton served a six-year prison term, double the time Pattan had served for the Rattlesnake Fire.
Since the Barton case, penalties have stiffened for accidental fire starts. Power companies have been fined millions of dollars for line failures that resulted in fires. Citizens have been jailed and fined for starting fires with lawnmowers. And a Forest Service fire management officer went to jail for setting two small fires to burn brush and give his crew a bit of work. The list goes on and on.
As wildland fires grow in intensity, frequency and destructiveness, and are made worse by drought, climate change, past forestry practices and the spread of human development, anything that can reduce the problem should be welcomed. Long prison terms and the death penalty may not deter arsonists, but they do take fire-starters off the street and caution anyone outdoors in extreme conditions to think twice about what they are doing.When the Fourmile Canyon Fire erupted west of Boulder in 2010, smoke from the wildfire poured into parts of the city including a site housing scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-08-evidence-heat-trapping-effects-wildfire-particles.html#jCpWithin 24 hours, a few researchers at the David Skaggs Research Center had opened up a particle sampling port on the roof of the building and started pulling in smoky air for analysis by two custom instruments inside. They became the first scientists to directly measure and quantify some unique heat-trapping effects of wildfire smoke particles.
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-08-evidence-heat-trapping-effects-wildfire-particles.html#jCpWhen the Fourmile Canyon Fire erupted west of Boulder in 2010, smoke from the wildfire poured into parts of the city including a site housing scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Within 24 hours, a few researchers at the David Skaggs Research Center had opened up a particle sampling port on the roof of the building and started pulling in smoky air for analysis by two custom instruments inside. They became the first scientists to directly measure and quantify some unique heat-trapping effects of wildfire smoke particles. “For the first time we were able to measure these warming effects minute-by-minute as the fire progressed,” said CIRES scientist Dan Lack, lead author of the study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers also were able to record a phenomenon called the “lensing effect,” in which oils from the fire coat the soot particles and create a lens that focuses more light onto the particles. This can change the “radiative balance” in an area, sometimes leading to greater warming of the air and cooling of the surface. While scientists had previously predicted such an effect and demonstrated it in laboratory experiments, the Boulder researchers were one of the first to directly measure the effect during an actual wildfire. Lack and his colleagues found that lensing increased the warming effect of soot by 50 to 70 percent. “When the fire erupted on Labor Day, so many researchers came in to work to turn on instruments and start sampling that we practically had traffic jams on the road into the lab,” Lack said. “I think we all realized that although this was an unfortunate event, it might be the best opportunity to collect some unique data. It turned out to be the best dataset, perfectly suited to the new instrument we had developed.” The instrument called a spectrophotometer can capture exquisite detail about all particles in the air, including characteristics that might affect the smoke particles’ tendency to absorb sunlight and warm their surroundings. While researchers know that overall, wildfire smoke can cause this lensing effect, the details have been difficult to quantify, in part because of sparse observations of particles from real-world fires. Once the researchers began studying the data they collected during the fire, it became obvious that the soot from the wildfire was different in several key ways from soot produced by other sourcesdiesel engines, for example. “When vegetation burns, it is not as efficient as a diesel engine, and that means some of the burning vegetation ends up as oils,” Lack said. In the smoke plume, the oils coated the soot particles and that microscopic sheen acted like a magnifying glass, focusing more light onto the soot particles and magnifying the warming of the surrounding air. The researchers also discovered that the oils coating the soot were brown, and that dark coloration allowed further absorption of light, and therefore further warming the atmosphere around the smoke plume. The additional warming effects mean greater heating of the atmosphere enveloped in dark smoke from a wildfire, and understanding that heating effect is important for understanding climate change, Lack said. The extra heating also can affect cloud formation, air turbulence, winds and even rainfall. The discovery was made possible by state-of-the-art instruments developed by CIRES, NOAA and other scientists, Lack said. The instruments can capture fine-scale details about particles sent airborne by the fire, including their composition, shape, size, color and ability to absorb and reflect sunlight of various wavelengths. “With such well-directed measurements, we can look at the warming effects of soot, the magnifying coating and the brown oils and see a much clearer, yet still smoky picture of the effect of forest fires on climate,” Lack said. CIRES is a cooperative institute of CU-Boulder and NOAA.