What triggers the enormous blazes that devastate the American West seemingly every summer? It is a natural subject of curiosity, given the magnitude of the destruction that ensues. We have been taught that forest fires often have as their root cause an event so small and preventable as the spark from a flung cigarette butt hitting dry brush. And those who grew up on Smokey the Bear’s relentless campaign to instill in us a sense of personal responsibility for such disasters would naturally like to see someone held accountable.
So we took interest last week when it came to light that a fire consuming thousands of acres was started by a lone target-shooter in the woods of Southern California. And when we learned that the man would be issued a summons and fined an amount to help defray the public cost of fighting the fire, we were justly pleased.
But what do we do when the cause of a catastrophic wildfire is simply unknown?
For structural fires, the specific causes and contributing factors involved are often known and rarely undocumented. There is, after all, a driving monetary incentive to assign liability for the property damage sustained in any structural fire. And the smaller scope of most structural fires can make the job of isolating first causes somewhat easier. The result, of course, is satisfying, explanatory detail, from which we can glean a certain intellectual mastery over the whole phenomenon of structural fires, so that when the topic arises in conversation we might cite statistics on the effectiveness of fire safety measures in building codes or the dangers of risky indoor behaviors like smoking and drinking (together).
Wildfires, though, are different. Government agencies who keep cause data on wildfires generally distinguish between what they believe are “lightning-caused” fires and what they believe are “human-caused” fires, but those categories are never detailed enough to satisfy us. We want to know exactly what kinds of human carelessness or error were involved, what irresponsible lout is to blame, and certainly what causes might have come that were neither human nor lightning.
Thankfully, we have a few news reporters eager to fill in the gaps, knowing full well that the public craves this knowledge. And once in a while, they uncover information so spectacular that it makes for a story of downright mythical dimensions.
Read, for example, the following passage from a July 19, 2004 Associated Press (AP) wire, which offers an unattributed but dramatic account of how the latest fire in Los Angeles County began:
SANTA CLARITA — Firefighters battled Monday to save hundreds of homes threatened by a stubborn wildfire that broke out over the weekend in tinder-dry brush and raced over hillsides and through canyons in northern Los Angeles County.
Although no houses have been lost, nearly 1,600 homes have been evacuated since the fire began Saturday. It was ignited when a red-tailed hawk flew into a power line, was electrocuted and its flaming body fell into brush left dry by years of drought.
The AP reporter identifies no source for the red-tailed hawk story. Instead, it is laid out in the journalist’s own matter-of-fact prose. Although the account has not been repeated in updates of the same story, this strange information still sent reverberations, however quiet, across the Internet.
On the Oregon Birding List, a man identified as “Tim Lee” frets about what may well become an epidemic of electrocuted hawks:
I think this could be a time for the engineers and environmentalists to form an idea of trying to prevent red-tails or other birds of prey from hitting the power lines. Maybe they could try to establish a type of noise-making bird-proof sensor which could force the hawks to stay away from the risks of electrocutions.
Maybe this is just an arbitrary idea that I snatched it out of blue. Hopefully, there could be a solution of preventing the bird electrocutions ASAP. That way, it could make the environment a safer place for birds to cruise around, but also a safer place for us to live.
A respondent, Barbara Millikan, writes back to Mr. Lee with some skepticism about the story, noting that in the dozen or so similar cases she’s heard about or witnessed(!), “the bird is electrocuted, but isn’t burned.” She explains, “The short happens at a pole with a transformer, and the jolt throws the bird off (or the contracting muscles, or the bird falls) but in any case, a circuit breaker kicks in and the power goes out, just about immediately.” She includes in her posting an original poem on the topic, penned in 2000:
DEATH OF A HAWK
Circling, the red tailed hawk
Screams high and thin,
Calling to her mate
Eyes wide and claws clenched,
His body lies
Tangled in blackberries
At the foot of the power pole
Where he landed, and,
With one wide, back-winged sweep
Closed the circuit from hot to ground.
The computer only flickered;
Protected from surges
These words live on.
(Barbara Millikan, 2/3/00)
Clearly, much pathos can be found in the image of a majestic hawk’s "flaming body" dropping into some dry leaves and setting the countryside afire. The truth value of the AP’s firestarter story, though, is another matter. When someone like Mr. Lee has no trouble segueing that story into an argument for protecting hawks from electrocution, a measure that will also make the world "a safer place for us to live," perhaps we should worry — and wonder if our reporter, hoping to dazzle us, hasn’t inadvertently ignited some kind of fire himself.