One million acres of California real estate have been lost to wildfire so far this year – the state’s worst fire season ever. More than 12,000 homes have been threatened. How did it happen?
Unfortunately, destructive wildfires almost always begin with a human being, intentionally or otherwise. A carelessly discarded cigarette…an improperly extinguished campfire…a car accident. There are countless ways to ignite a wildfire.
All it takes is a single spark.
For example, according to a recent New York Times article, here’s what California fire investigators have discovered so far about this year’s fires:
“[O]ne wildfire began with a spark from a flat tire. Another when someone hammered a fence post amid dry vegetation. Still another was allegedly ignited by a conspiracy-minded recluse who had sent a text message to a local firefighter warning the place ‘is going to burn.’ ”
In California, almost 95% of all fires are human caused, according to Cal Fire. About seven percent of those can be attributed to arson.
So human error and accident account for the vast majority of California wildfires.
Which is why several California fire agencies banded together a few years ago to create the One Less Spark—One Less Wildfire campaign. This education effort is designed to provide the public with constant fire prevention messages. Its particular focus is in reducing the number of wildfires caused by vehicles and other equipment.
For instance, the following Cal Fire video demonstrates how to avoid creating a spark when using lawn equipment:
James McMullen used to be California’s chief fire marshal, and he’s made a career of investigating wildfires. To him, the key to fire prevention is recognizing that dry areas cannot be treated the same as green vegetation, when it comes to equipment usage.
In California, it’s not just intentional arsonists who are are held criminally liable for starting wildfires. In recent years, the state has become increasingly aggressive in holding people accountable with criminal charges for arson or negligence. (See related article, “Couple Charged with Arson in Lake Christine Fire.”)
For instance, one man was sent to prison for accidentally igniting a 2004 fire when his lawn mower struck a rock. The resulting spark started a blaze that destroyed dozens of homes.
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In an even more tragic 2003 case, a hunter who got lost in the San Diego County woods set a signal fire in the hopes of alerting authorities as to his whereabouts. Alas, the fire quickly spread, burning more than 300,000 acres and killing 15 people.
While the hunter did face criminal charges, he was able to avoid prison. Instead, he was sentenced to community service and a work furlough program.