Rattlesnake Fire, 61 years ago

Stanford Patton Rattlesnake FireIt was 61 years ago today that Stanford Pattan threw a match into some brush on the Mendocino National Forest in northern California. A matter of hours later 15 firefighters that were working on the Rattlesnake Fire were dead.

ForestHistory.org has a copy of a very interesting article that appeared in American Forests in 1953 describing Mr. Pattan, the struggles he faced, his earlier attempt to start a major fire that day, and his movements before and after he started the fire. The article includes one graphic photo.

Below is a brief summary of the incident from our Infamous Wildland Fires Around the World publication.

On July 9, 1953 a New Tribes Mission firefighting crew under the direction of U.S. Forest Service overhead was trapped by flames as they worked on a brush covered hillside in Powderhouse Canyon on the Mendocino National Forest. The crew was working on a spot fire in a narrow canyon covered with 40 year-old Chaparral brush. They had just completed construction of a hand line around their spot fire when a sudden wind shift caused another spot fire to flare-up. This other spot fire was located up-canyon from the crew. However, the unusually strong down-canyon wind pushed the uncontrolled spot fire toward the crew’s location. Within 30 minutes the fire had run more than a mile down canyon, catching the crew while they attempted to fight their way through the heavy brush to safety. Fifteen firefighters perished on the Rattlesnake Fire that day. Nine fellow crewmembers barely escaped.

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Bloodhounds help find arsonists in West Virginia

Bloodhounds are credited with helping to reduce the number of arson fires in West Virginia.

An excerpt from an article in the Charleston Gazette:

…“We’ve had great success at apprehending arsonists,”  [John Bird, an investigator for the state Division of Forestry] said. “And the word has gotten out. It doesn’t matter if people are on foot, riding four-wheelers or inside vehicles. The dogs can track them back to their homes. Once people realize that, they tend to be a whole lot less inclined to go out and start fires.”

With noses more than a million times more sensitive than those of their human handlers, the agency’s bloodhounds have proven themselves capable of some amazing olfactory feats.

“We’ve tracked some suspects for miles,” Bird said. “We’ve had cases where the suspect had set fires from his vehicle and the dog was still able to track him. We even had one case in which the dog tracked seven different people to their homes. It turned out that all of them were involved in a single arson. Every time we harness these dogs, they do something that amazes us.”

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Wildfire briefing, March 6, 2014

Minnesota fire chief pleads guilty to arson

The chief of the St. Louis County volunteer fire department in Minnesota resigned after investigators charged him with arson last December. On Friday, Ryan Scharber, 30, pleaded guilty to setting a fire on U.S. Forest Service land and to one count of attempted arson. Below is an excerpt from an article in the Daily Mail:

…According to documents filed in federal court in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dunne is requesting that Scharber should be given the maximum five-year sentence, reports the Star Tribune. In the memorandum, Dunne disputed Scharber’s contention that he had set the fires ‘to get out of the house for a few hours to get relief from his newborn child’s acid reflux.’ The prosecutor noted that Scharber hadn’t offered that excuse during the five-hour interview with investigators in which he eventually confessed on December 19, 2012. ‘The psychiatrist at the Range Mental Health Center diagnosed the defendant with pyromania,’ Dunne wrote. ‘The real reason behind the defendant’s criminal conduct in this case was that diagnosis.’

New government report describes possible ‘cascading system failures’ caused by climate change

About 240 authors and a 60-person Federal Advisory Committee (The “National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee”) have developed a draft climate report. The lengthy document warns that climate-fueled storms, flooding and droughts could cause “cascading system failures” unless there are changes made to minimize those effects. One of the dozens of topics covered in the report was “Forestry”. You can read that section of the report HERE. Below is a brief summary of that section.

Climate change is increasing the vulnerability of forests to ecosystem change and tree mortality through fire, insect infestations, drought, and disease outbreaks. Western U.S. forests are particularly vulnerable to increased wildfire and insect outbreaks; eastern forests have smaller disturbances but could be more sensitive to periodic drought.

Pigeon sets fire to a building in London

A pigeon is being blamed for starting a fire on the roof of a flat in London. Firefighters believe the bird dropped a lit cigarette into its nest on the roof of the building, starting a fire that forced the nine residents to evacuate the structure. Four fire engines and 21 firefighters were able to save the flat, but the roof was damaged. No one had been on the roof in a long time and there was no electrical equipment in the area, but neighbors told firefighters they had often seen birds flying in and out of a hole in the roof.

Other cases of animal arson

This is not the first time we have run a story on a bird setting fire to a building. It also happened in 2009, again in the United Kingdom, when a sparrow was accused of picking up a lit cigarette and, like the pigeon, depositing it among the dry twigs and grass in its nest. We have a whole series of articles tagged “animal arson”.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Preston

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Wildfire briefing, February 14, 2014

Fire near Wallan

Fire near Wallan, 60 km north of Melbourne. New South Wales RFS photo.

Police investigating 14 suspicious fires in Victoria

Police and fire investigators in Victoria, Australia are looking carefully at 14 fires that occurred over the last week for which arson is suspected. In over 400 fires since Thursday of last week, homes, animals, and crops have been destroyed or killed. A radio and print ad campaign will urge residents to report any suspicious activity to Crime Stoppers.

Wild meteorology terms go mainstream

Melissa Mahony has written an op-ed for livescience.com in which she examines some interesting and sometimes complex scientific weather terms that have crept into the mainstream over the last year or so. Ms. Mahony goes into a little detail about each one, but here is the list… how many are you familiar with?

Doc Hastings, of “Cantwell-Hastings Bill”, to retire

Rep. Doc Hastings

Rep. Doc Hastings

One of the two federal legislators who deserve most of the blame for passing the infamous Cantwell-Hastings Bill, which did irreparable harm to the process of learning lessons after wildfire accidents, is retiring.

The bill was sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell and U.S. Representative Doc Hastings, and became Public Law 107-203 in 2002. It includes this passage:

In the case of each fatality of an officer or employee of the Forest Service that occurs due to wildfire entrapment or burnover, the Inspector General of the Department of Agriculture shall conduct an investigation of the fatality. The investigation shall not rely on, and shall be completely independent of, any investigation of the fatality that is conducted by the Forest Service.

The Cantwell-Hastings bill, signed into law in 2002, was a knee-jerk reaction to the fatalities on the Thirtymile fire the previous year. The Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General’s office had no experience or training in the suppression or investigation of wildland fires. They are much more likely to be investigating violations at a chicken ranch than evaluating fire behavior and tactical decisions at a wildfire. The goal of the Inspector General investigation would be to determine if any crimes were committed, so that a firefighter could be charged and possibly sent to prison.

After the bill was passed, a firefighter on the Thirtymile Fire was charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter. Now firefighters have to lawyer-up after an accident and they sometimes do everything they can to avoid talking to investigators. After the 19 fatalities on the Yarnell Hill fire, the U.S. Forest Service prohibited their employees from providing information to one of the investigation teams, a decision that may have been a result of the environment created by Cantwell-Hastings. Lessons are now much more difficult to learn.

The Cantwell-Hastings Bill and Public Law 107-203 need to be repealed, or at least modified to more resemble the investigations that the military conducts following aviation accidents regulated by law,10 U.S.C. 2254(d). More information about this procedure is at Wildfire Today.

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Investigators used GPS tracking device to nab firefighter-arsonist

Zane Wallace Peterson

Zane Wallace Peterson

Investigators used GPS tracking devices to gather evidence about a former firefighter who is accused of setting several wildfires in California, including the Clover Fire that killed one resident, burned 8,073 acres, and destroyed 60 homes.

Zane Wallace has been charged with over 200 arson-related counts, including 60 for arson to occupied structures. The fires occurred in September and October of 2013 in Shasta County.

According to information uncovered by the Redding Searchlight, investigators interviewed Mr. Wallace the day after the Clover Fire started, and later placed the tracking devices on two of his vehicles, which were later recorded at the location of some of the fires that started after the GPS devices were in place.

The U.S. Forest Service confirmed that Mr. Peterson was a former employee on the Mendocino National Forest. He worked as a firefighter (Forestry Technician) and fire engine operator from May 15, 2005 until October 22, 2012.

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Dick

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Fire investigations and pyroterrorism

The Gazette in Colorado Springs has two interesting articles about investigating the cause and origin of wildfires and how thoughts of pyroterrorism have occurred to some folks in the state. No knowledgeable person as far as we know is saying the numerous suspicious fires that have occurred in the front range over the last two years are related to pyroterrorism. However, the 25 Teller County fires in June, 2012, combined with the Black Forest and Waldo Canyon fires that together destroyed about 850 homes and caused several fatalities, has fire investigators and detectives on edge, not ruling anything out.

Below is an excerpt from the second article, about pyroterrorism (which also quoted Dick Mangan, former President of the International Association of Wildland Fire):

…Investigators searching for the cause of a wildfire essentially work backwards, said Bill Gabbert, managing editor of Wildfire Today.

“You have to look for the direction of the spread to see which way the fire is moving,” he said. “So you have to work backwards.”

The quicker the response, the easier it is to find the point of origin because it decreases the area investigators must peruse.

Once the point of origin is located, investigators must determine what started the fire, which, depending on the igniter, “can be fairly easy or hard.”

“If they use a lighter and put it back in their pocket, it’s hard,” he said.

But arsonists also use devices that are left at the scene, sometimes something as tiny as a match.

“If you’re lucky, you can find the match,” Gabbert said. “Even if it’s charred, it helps.”

 

More information: articles at Wildfire Today tagged pyroterrorism and arson.

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