Did humans learn how to use fire as a management tool from birds?

It is thought that birds in northern Australia help spread wildfire by carrying burning twigs.

On 16 occasions in the past we have jokingly used the term “animal arson” when a critter played a part in starting a fire. Examples include a mouse chewing through a power cord (and for a while was thought guilty of manslaughter), a dog chewing on strike-anywhere matches, a pigeon and a sparrow carrying lit cigarettes to their nests, a bird dropping a fish onto a power line, and a bird’s wings contacting two power lines.

Black kite in Bangalore, India. Photo by Yathin S. Krishnappa.

There may be more to this than we originally thought. Researchers have documented multiple instances of anecdotal evidence leading to the belief that birds have helped spread wildfires in Australia’s Northern Territory. There are two primary suspects, the black kite, Milvus migrans and brown falcon, Falco berigora, but other birds of interest are the grasshopper buzzard, Butastur rufipennis in central Africa, and the crested caracara, Caracara cheriway in the southern United States.

Black Kites are found on four continents, but not in North or South America. They feed on small live prey, fish, lizards, carrion, large insects, and have been known to take birds, bats, and rodents. They are attracted to vegetation fires and will fly in from miles away to dine on small animals escaping the flames.

Black Kites fire prey

They like it so much that it is believed they keep the fire going by picking up burning twigs in their claws and carrying it some distance to a patch of unburned vegetation. They will wait with their feathered friends until the fire gets going and their table is set, and then grab the scurrying critters. If the fire slows down too much in that area, the story goes, they will find another burning twig to propagate the fire again.

There is also an account of a black kite dropping bread in a river. When fish congregated around the bait, the kite dived in for a meal. It is not a huge stretch from using bread as bait to carrying fire in order to herd small animals.

The evidence to support this behavior is all anecdotal, but it has aroused the interest of scientists Bob Gosford and Mark Bonta who presented some of their preliminary research on this issue at the Raptor Research Foundation meeting in Sacramento, California November 8, 2015. Their presentation included this theory:

It is also possible that humanity’s acquisition and manipulation of fire may be a result of the observation of intentional avian pyrophilic behaviour rather than solely from some relationship with lightning-caused fire.

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “animal arson“.

Bushfire threatens coastal towns in northwest Tasmania

Some evacuation routes may be cut off by the fire.

Northwest Tas bushfire 1325 UTC Jan 25 2016
The icons represent heat detected by a satellite at 1:25 p.m. UTC, January 25, 2015.

Residents in some coastal towns in northwest Tasmania, Australia have been advised to evacuate as a bushfire spreads closer to the communities. The fire is within four to eight miles (6 to 12 km) of Arthur River, Nelson Bay, Couta Rocks, and Temma.

The Tasmania Fire Service warned at 6:52 a.m. local time on January 27 that Nelson Bay and Temma were “at high risk NOW”, advising that “burning embers … will threaten your home before the main fire”.

Residents from Temma and Couta Rocks may not be able to travel north to their evacuation center. The TFS said “there is a nearby safer place at the beach”.

Firefighters in Tasmania battling numerous fires

More than 50 fires are burning uncontrolled across Tasmaina in Australia.

Map of fires in Tasmania
Map of fires in Tasmania.

Firefighters in Tasmania have had their hands full in recent days dealing with a rash of fires burning across the island state south of the Australian mainland. More than 42,000 hectares (103,000 acres) have burned in the past 10 days.

At least partially due to moderating weather, all of the fires are now at the “Advice” warning level or lower, meaning people in the area should keep up to date with developments, but there is no immediate need to start taking action or to evacuate.

Approximately 100 firefighters from New South Wales and Victoria on the Australian mainland will travel to Tasmania Saturday to assist with the fires. Equipment, including two firefighting helicopters from New South Wales, is already on its way. NSW is also sending an 18-person Incident Management Team.

One of the larger fires has burned almost 18,000 hectares (44,000 acres) 28 kilometers (17 miles) south of Smithton in the general vicinity of Sumac Road, Dempster Plains, and Temma. Parts of the fire have not spread recently but the western, northern and southern edges remain active. There has been a run from the northeast corner through the Luncheon Hill area. The fire is east of the Western Explorer Road and has crossed Tarkine Wilderness Drive. Crews are working in the northwest area of the fire to protect forests assets.

fires in Tasmania

Animated wildfire smoke forecast

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service in Australia sent this interesting tweet today — an animated wildfire smoke forecast. I have not seen this distributed to the public in the United States.

After you start the video and click on the arrows at the bottom-right, it will fill the screen and you can almost read the names of the geographic features. So obviously it needs a better background map (and maybe fewer wind direction arrows that clutter the image) but it has potential for keeping the public informed about wildfire smoke.

Two killed in Waroona Bushfire in Western Australia

The BBC reports that two people have been found dead in a very large bushfire south of Perth in Southwestern Australia. Police say the bodies of two men in their 70s were discovered in the debris of burnt-out houses in the town of Yarloop. Most of the structures in the town were destroyed when the Waroona Bushfire, pushed by strong winds, raged through the community.

The blaze continues to spread and threaten populated areas, but less intensely now, with less extreme weather conditions. An emergency warning was issued at 10:51 a.m. local time on January 9 for the following locations: Hamel, Cookernup, Yarloop, Harvey, east of Waroona and the surrounding areas. It doesn’t include the Waroona townsite.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services reports that the fire has consumed 70,876 hectares (175,000 acres) and 143 homes and outbuildings. It is being fought by 250 firefighters, 50 appliances including 38 heavy machines, air tankers, and helicopters. The fire perimeter is more than 140 miles.

(Click on the videos at the top and bottom of this article in order to view them.)

Waroona Fire emergency warning
The red icon represents the general location of the Emergency Warning due to the Waroona Bushfire in Western Australia.


Australia bushfire
Photo by @Nietzscheanac

At least 95 homes destroyed in Western Australia bushfire

Most of the homes in the Western Australia town of Yarloop were destroyed when a large bushfire marched through the area Thursday night.

Fire and Emergency Services commissioner Wayne Gregson said on Friday that 95 houses and numerous other public buildings burned, including the Steam Museum, the hotel, post office, town hall, and most of the school. There are no reports of fatalities.

The people that did not evacuate said many homes could have been saved but no water was available. The electrical power went out, which made it impossible to refill the town’s water tanks.

The remaining residents in Yarloop were going to evacuate to Pinjarra in a convoy of 30 vehicles protected on the journey by fire engines.

The latest community threatened by the Waroona Fire is the Harvey townsite, where the fire is 5 km northeast of the town and is moving toward the southwest. The effects of moderating weather have slowed the spread.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services reports that the fire has consumed 67,000 hectares (165,000 acres) and 121 homes, and is being fought by 250 firefighters, 50 appliances, air tankers, and helicopters. The fire perimeter is more than 138 miles.

The lightning caused fire was reported at 7:25 a.m. on January 6. It is being managed by an interagency Incident Management Team comprised of DFES, Parks and Wildlife, and local government personnel.