Did a meteorite cause a brush fire in Bowie? Definitely not, and here’s why

Did a meteorite cause a brush fire in Bowie? Definitely not, and here’s why

25 April 2016

published by www.washingtonpost.com

USA– A fairly average brush fire Sunday night has led to some wild speculation about its cause, thanks to a crater-like hole in the ground, an interesting-looking rock and Twitter.

After firefighters in Bowie, Md., spent hours putting out the fire, they “discovered a hunk of what appears to be meteorite lying at the bottom of a cratered patch of earth, surrounded by the splintered and charred remains of tree limbs,” CBS Baltimore wrote Monday morning. They were referring to a tweet from the fire department that suggested that a meteorite may have sparked the fire.

Don’t get me wrong — this is a mystery for sure; we don’t know what started the fire. But it wasn’t a meteorite.

To be fair, there are certainly a couple of reasons why someone would think that this may have been a meteorite. The obvious reason is that there’s this pretty decent-sized crater with a rock at the bottom. It’s what you would image a meteorite crater would look like. We also received reports and confirmation of a fireball on Saturday night — a bright green flash seen from Connecticut to Virginia, including in the D.C. metro.

However, there was no such report Sunday night, when this fire was reported.

The final piece of evidence is the ongoing Lyrid meteor shower, which peaked late last week.

None of this really matters, though, says Mike Hankey, director of operations at the American Meteor Society.

“First off, meteorites don’t start forest fires,” Hankey told The Washington Post. “A meteor explodes so high up the atmosphere that it’s cold when it hits the ground.”

For example, the meteorite that blasted into Chelyabinsk, Russia, in Februaru 2013 — causing nearly 1,500 injuries and damaging thousands of buildings — was the “size of a house,” but it would not have started any fires. Meteors aren’t even “on fire” as they shoot across the sky; it’s actually the air around the meteoroid that becomes superheated, which causes the space rock to shed debris, which is what creates the glowing streak across the sky.

And, Hankey said, “something that would create a crater like this would be too huge to go unnoticed. There would be an echoing boom. The forest would be blown down and the trees would be knocked over, but there’s no explosive fire.”

What is that crater, then? Maybe a tree that got knocked over a while back which has since eroded into a bowl-shaped hole in the ground. “As soon as I saw the picture, I thought this would be a pretty cool place to start a camp fire,” Hankey mused. “Occam’s razor says it was a fire started in the woods by kids playing with matches.”

I certainly don’t blame them for being intrigued by the situation, but the Bowie Volunteer Fire Department quickly realized its mistake Monday morning and issued an apology for the confusion.

“A tweet was sent out using the official department twitter account that insinuated that there was a relationship between a meteorite and the cause of fire,” wrote Jonathan D. Howard, Sr., chief of the Bowie Volunteer Fire Department. “This was simply not so and the post should have never been made listing a cause. Cause and determination is made solely by the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department.”

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