You don’t need to be a genius to figure out the main cause of large-scale fires that always seem to choke the air this time of year.
Global warming? Hot temperatures certainly are a contributor, but no.
Poor forest management? Yes, even a recent New York Times story on fires said controlled burns would help reduce the severity of wildfires. But that doesn’t explain the cause.
Lightning? True, a small portion of fires are caused by this.
No, all you have to do is pick up a newspaper. I’ll give you an example from Tuesday.
A 27-year-old man was charged with criminal mischief after he decided to steal gas from cars at a Hertz rental lot. When siphoning didn’t work, he came up with the idea of using a power drill to make holes in gas tanks.
And they say people today aren’t resourceful.
The only problem with this scheme was that the power drill became hot, which ignited the gasoline. The suspect wasn’t completely stupid. He made sure his own pants and shirt were extinguished before he ran away, never bothering to report the fire he saw rapidly growing as he left.
Or you might have read about the West Valley City man last week who killed a city code enforcement officer, then set fire to her truck and his neighbor’s house.
No, folks, the culprit is staring us in the mirror. And frankly, that’s a tougher thing to battle than global warming or forest management.
It doesn’t just require lawmakers to outlaw being stupid, although that uniquely human trait appears in abundance when one studies such things. It also involves identifying and treating mental illness in various forms.
But with the West becoming both drier and more populated with each passing year, it’s a problem we need to confront.
The two cases I cited did not result in wildfires, but they are indicative of the larger problem.
A study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that humans caused 84 percent of the wildfires during a 21-year period ending in 2012. Not only that, the man-made fires made the annual fire season three times longer, and humans tended to set fires where moisture was higher than where nature started them. Human-caused blazes covered areas seven times larger than lightning-caused fires.
No one knows yet what started the Mendocino fire in California, which tragically resulted in the death of Draper Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett. Other fires in the West are raging from causes yet to be determined. Maybe lightning is to blame, but statistically it is more that humans were involved. A recent fire on Lake Mountain near Saratoga Springs, Utah, was caused by people target shooting.
The costs of the annual fires are enormous, not only in money and homes lost, but in human lives. Yes, lightning is a problem in tinder-dry conditions. It caused Utah’s Coal Hollow Fire near Spanish Fork. But if all we had to worry about were lightning- fires, the costs would be much lower.
Last summer, a woman in Oregon described for the Willamette Week how she came upon a group of teenagers one day during a hike along the Columbia River Gorge. She saw a boy throwing firecrackers down a ravine while another young person recorded it on video.
“Do you realize how dangerous it is what you just did?” she asked. The boy didn’t say a word.
But soon she saw smoke coming from the ravine in growing billows. She ran back down the trail warning people away, then found a law enforcement officer in the parking lot.
He ended up pulling over a van carrying the teenagers. She described their attitudes.
“I felt like I was in a nightmare because these kids were not reacting the way I felt normal people would react,” she told the Willamette Week.14 comments on this story
“When I sat and watched the kids being interviewed by the police, I don’t know what they were feeling but I got a glimpse of at least one young woman or girl who looked like she was just hanging out like it was just any other day.”
Perhaps the best we can do is work to detect fires more quickly and to respond before they grow. Perhaps better forest management would make fires less severe, kind of like how even a weak batch of flu vaccine can lessen the symptoms.
But unless we can make humans more responsible, smoke-free summer days in the West are bound to become even more rare.