What Happens When People Cause Wildfires?

Aug 9, 2017

Humans account for an overwhelming majority of wildland fires, with federal agencies estimating that 80 to 90 percent are caused by people.

Target shooting is just one of several ways that people can spark flames. Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick look at other actions worrying local officials, and finds out what happens to those caught starting fires.

Nestled a few blocks south of the Truckee River in east Reno, there’s a lab where Ryan Elliott does his work.

He’s a fire investigator for the Carson City Bureau of Land Management. Right now he’s testing the moisture content of grasses and brush from different active fires, so officials can predict how quickly they might spread.

BLM Fire Investigator Ryan Elliott weighs grass samples from various fires, including the Doyle Fire, to see how much moisture they hold.
Credit Noah Glick

“So our engine captains go out two times a month, they gather live fuel samples,” he says. “We bring ‘em in, we weigh ‘em wet, put ‘em in an oven, bake ‘em for 24 hours, take ‘em out, weigh ‘em dry. And the difference between the wet and dry weight is what we use to calculate the fuel moisture.”

Besides using this ten-foot wide industrial oven to essentially cook sagebrush, Elliott also investigates how regional wildfires happen. He says nature is responsible for most of the blazes in the area, except for those that grow to more than 300 acres in size.

“60 percent of our large fires are human-caused and 40 percent of them are natural-caused,” he says.

Elliott places grass samples into an industrial-sized oven. Those samples will be baked for 24 hours, then weighed again to see how much moisture is held in these fire fuels.
Credit Noah Glick

That’s just locally. According to the U.S. Forest Service, about four out of five wildland fires happen because of people.

There are several ways in which we can be responsible—from driving ATVs on dry brush to dragging chains on the road—many of which we’ve seen already this year.

But there’s one in particular that has Tray Palmer concerned. He’s the fire marshal for the Reno Fire Department.

“Basically, 20 percent of all wildland fires typically are intentionally-set,” he says, “whether it’s through child play or it’s through arson.”

Palmer says the motivations for arson vary—from thrill-seeking and revenge to something called a vanity complex.

“We also call it the ‘hero complex,’” he says. “You can have a person who starts a fire and is the first person on scene and he wants to be the hero. And all of a sudden, people [are] like, ‘Hey, hey that’s cool, you saw the fire. You put it out.’”

Now when it comes to prosecuting these fires, it really comes down to whether the act was negligent or intentional. If you flick a cigarette butt out of the window, that’s negligent. If you use a match to light a bush on fire, that’s intentional.

Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks says in these cases, negligence can sometimes be proven pretty easily.

“You know you’re not supposed to be doing that, everybody in the media is talking about how you’re not supposed to be doing that. Public leaders are talking about how you’re not supposed to be doing that because it can cause fires. If you go out and do that, that’s pretty clear evidence of negligence,” he says. “Because you know better.”

Hicks says there are two paths of legal action. First, if anything illegal was done—like lighting fireworks or shooting in a congested area—then criminal charges could be filed and penalties levied.

But even if no laws were broken, fire agencies or affected residents could still sue in civil court for fire suppression costs or damages. That can total millions of dollars.

“It’s just not worth it,” Hicks says. “It is just not worth it to risk causing a wildfire, and all the authorities are taking it very seriously, especially this year.”

Back at his lab, Ryan Elliott thinks about this issue a lot, because he’s also a firefighter.

“I want you to remember that fires are dangerous, and I want you to remember the firemen. Because every year, we lose some,” he says.

Elliott says crews may take more risks when property or lives are in danger. So the fewer fires there are, the less likelihood of losing any more of the men and women committed to fighting them.