Is pyroterrorism a threat in the United States?

Most likely it is not IF, but WHEN it will occur

Above: A firefighter on the Rose Fire near Lake Elsinore, California, July 31, 2017. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

The first time I heard about the concept of terrorists using wildfire as a weapon in the United States was when Dick Mangan, the President of the International Association of Wildland Fire wrote an editorial for the March/April, 2005 issue of the organization’s magazine, Wildfire. Here is an excerpt:

…The massive increases in the US budget for protection from terrorism has been mostly sent to Police and Structural Fire Departments. But, wait: what about the threat of terrorist-caused wildland fires in our forests, community watersheds and wildland-urban interface? Who’s worried about that threat, what are they doing about it, and how much is being spent to fund the efforts to prevent it?

The history of fire being used as a tool of warfare is well documented: Native Americans used fire against their enemies, both other tribes and against the expanding European whites; the Aboriginal people of Australia also used fire to discourage the incursion of the British settlers onto their island.

In World War II, the Japanese launched “fire balloons” against the western US, and while largely unsuccessful, did start a few fires, and killed 6 citizens in Oregon. The Palestinians in the latter half of the 20th century used fire to try and destroy the carefully planted pine plantations in Israel…

In May, 2012 we heard that a magazine published by members of al Qaeda called for Western Muslims to wage war within the United States, urging them to engage in lone wolf attacks, including setting forest fires. According to ABC News, an issue of Inspire magazine surfaced on jihadi forums with one article titled “It Is of Your Freedom to Ignite a Firebomb”, which gave detailed instructions on how to build an “ember bomb” in a forest in the United States, and suggested Montana as a choice location due to the rapid population growth in forested areas.

In America, there are more houses built in the [countryside] than in the cities. It is difficult to choose a better place [than] in the valleys of Montana.

A previous issue of the magazine contained information on how to construct remote-controlled explosives, and helpfully listed the needed parts along with instructions and photos.

The first time I heard the term “pyroterrorism” was in reports that it was the topic of the  keynote address at the Firehouse World conference in San Diego in February, 2013. The speaker was Robert Baird, the U.S. Forest Service’s Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation Management. He is now the Forest Service’s Regional Fire Director for California.

When he gave that talk in San Diego Mr. Baird had been in the job for 14 months after obtaining the rank of Major in the U.S. Marine Corps where in 2005 he wrote a Future War Paper titled “Pyro-Terrorism-The Threat of Arson Induced Forest Fires as a Future Terrorist Weapon of Mass Destruction”.

His paper gets right to the point, beginning with his thesis:

The United States is at grave risk of a future pyro-terrorist attack—when terrorists unleash the latent energy in the nation’s forests to achieve the effect of a weapon of mass destruction—we must define the threat, understand America’s vulnerabilities, and take action to mitigate this danger to our Homeland.

The term pyroterrorism has been mentioned a few times in the media recently. One of the comments on a recent article on Wildfire Today included a link to a website I had never heard of that promoted the idea that terrorists have started at least one wildfire and are suspected in at least one other but provided no facts to support the theory. I have not heard of any reliable evidence that pyroterrorism has occurred in the United States in recent decades. Some people with extreme ideas want us to be very afraid of many things so they can use fear as a tactic to push a political agenda.

The article points out that natural causes were ruled out for a fire in Colorado. This only means investigators were able to eliminate volcanoes and lightning — which leaves dozens of other possible sources of ignition generally referred to as “human causes”, and does not necessarily point toward terrorists.

But we should not ignore pyroterrorism as a potential threat. Most likely it is not IF, but WHEN it will occur. Other than adequately funding our wildland budgets for fire suppression, prevention, detection, and fuel treatments, there is not much that land management agencies can do. However, those financial decisions are up to the Congress and the President, as well as the people who vote for them. But of course since suppression is sucking up a huge share of the budgets for land management agencies, that leaves decreasing amounts for programs that could prevent fires and reduce the number of acres burned.

Since 2001 the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have disrupted many terrorist-inspired groups and lone wolves who intended to launch attacks in the United States with explosives or other weapons. Hopefully they will be as successful in preventing foreign-inspired pyroterrorism and will become better at preventing massacres by deranged white domestic terrorists with stockpiles of weapons.

Holly Buck, a NatureNet Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, has written a fairly thorough summary of the status of pyroterrorism, including some thoughts about how to deal with it. Below is an excerpt:


“…Other experts have tried to find out how much of a risk pyroterrorism really is. ¹Mississippi State University’s professors Robert Grala, Jason Gordon, and Hugh Medal sent online surveys to 1,600 experts from a range of fire and security agencies. When asked if wildfires could be used in a terrorism plot, 85 percent of respondents said yes. More than half said they thought wildfires from terrorism would be more damaging than naturally occurring wildfires.

“The issue here is that when you have a naturally occurring wildfire, even if you have a multiple point issue, they are randomly distributed,” Grala said. Strategically placing the points where the fire comes from would affect how it spreads over the landscape.

At the same time, the experts thought the likelihood of a wildfire terrorism attack wasn’t very high, even though it was possible. Why not? One reason could simply be that it hasn’t happened. There are incidents of “eco-terrorism,” or domestic groups using fire to make a political point—for example, the FBI is still investigating an incident from 14 years ago, when the Earth Liberation Front took responsibility for setting a housing project on fire in San Diego.

There has been some concern about wildfire terrorism in other countries, though it’s not clear how authentic it is. After wildfires devastated Israel and the West Bank in November 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged that some of the fires had been “arson terrorism”. Other Israeli and Palestinian officials in the region refuted the claim.

To date, there have been no examples of pyroterrorism by foreign actors against the United States, but that might be dumb luck.

[…]

One Los Angeles Fire Department official suggested fire might not be as psychologically terrifying as other types of attacks, especially in a region where natural wildfires are a part of life. This also makes sense: wildfires consume brush and rage on the hilly peripheries. Terrorists may prefer to strike the busy heart of a society, where high death tolls are more likely. On the other hand, in an era of climate change, wildfires might induce a new level of fear, as the climate itself is uncanny, an unpredictable actor. Driven by high winds, California’s 2017 fires didn’t just destroy buildings in remote areas—they cut through city blocks in Santa Rosa and Ventura.”


¹From Bill: Go Bulldogs!

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.

USFS Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation talks about pyroterrorism

Robert Baird
Robert Baird

The U.S. Forest Service’s Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation Management spoke about pyroterrorism in a keynote address at the Firehouse World conference in San Diego this week.

After serving in the Marine Corps for 25 years, mostly as a planner, Mr. Baird was appointed to his position in the Forest Service in November of 2011. While attending Marine Corps University he wrote a paper titled Pyroterrorism: The Threat of Arson Induced Forest Fires as a Terrorist Weapon, and an article on the same subject, Profiles in Pyroterrorism: Convergence of crime, terrorism and wildfire unleash as a weapon on population.

At the conference this week, according to Firehouse, Mr. Baird mentioned several incidents that could be classified as pyroterrorism, including the Japanese fire balloons during the second World War, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and the arson fires set by Raymond Lee Oyler, one of them being the Esperanza Fire that killed a 5-person USFS engine crew. He also referred to an article in an al Qaeda magazine that called for Western Muslims to wage war within the United States, urging them to engage in lone wolf attacks, including setting forest fires.

Below is an excerpt from the Firehouse article:

In 2004, the FBI came upon intelligence and issued an alert to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) suggesting that Al Queda had plans to start wildland fires in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, Baird said, noting that all the material he was presenting was unclassified information and his interpretations and analysis were his own.

“I am not going to be some suit out of Washington, D.C., coming out here and telling you how to fight wildland fires,” said Baird, who added that his family in California was evacuated during the Camp Pendleton fire.

 

Economic warfare by forest fire

“America, I think, is under attack by terrorists waging economic warfare by fire.”

In this important and compelling video William Scott talks about how terrorists could, and perhaps already are waging economic war inside the United State by starting wildfires which can cost the government and residents billions of dollars. He also refers to the al Qaeda magazine article which encouraged Western Muslims to wage war within the United States by engaging in lone wolf attacks, including setting forest fires.

Economic terrorism was one of the desired effects of the 9/11 attacks, to force the United States to spend billions of dollars beefing up our security infrastructure. The terrorists succeeded in meeting that objective.

Mr. Scott worked on the 2002 Blue Ribbon Panel that studied and made recommendations about the air tanker fleet after the mid-air wing failures of two air tankers that year. He also is a former editor of Aviation Week, former official of the National Security Agency, and the author of Space Wars.

In the video, Mr. Scott does not just complain and rant like some politicians, he actually has some constructive suggestions, including:

  • Using NASA and military assets, 24/7, to patrol fire-prone forests, using “fire combat air patrols” to quickly detect new fires and to track suspects leaving the scene;
  • Stop narrowly thinking of fires as a land management issue, and begin treating them as a national security issue;
  • “Finally it’s time. We have to develop and field a robust large air tanker fleet of firefighting aircraft. The Forest Service has made a good start, but it still suffers from a culture and attitude of what firefighters call ‘cheapism’, the idea that we can fight wildland fire on the cheap. And that’s no longer acceptable.”

 

Thanks go out to Walt

Al Qaeda magazine encourages forest fire arson in the US

(Originally published May 2, 2012)

A magazine published by members of al Qaeda has called for Western Muslims to wage war within the United States, urging them to engage in lone wolf attacks, including setting forest fires. According to ABC News, a recent issue of Inspire magazine has surfaced on jihadi forums with one article titled “It Is of Your Freedom to Ignite a Firebomb”, which gives detailed instructions on how to build an “ember bomb” in a forest in the United States, and suggested Montana as a choice location due to the rapid population growth in forested areas.

In America, there are more houses built in the [countryside] than in the cities. It is difficult to choose a better place [than] in the valleys of Montana.

A previous issue of the magazine contained information on how to construct remote-controlled explosives, and helpfully listed the needed parts along with instructions and photos.

ABC News has been calling around today to find a wildfire expert who can be interviewed on camera for a piece they expect to be on Wednesday’s Good Morning America. One person they called was Dick Mangan, a past President of the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF), but ABC was not able to work out the logistics of quickly getting a camera crew to his house in Montana. The last we heard they found someone in the Sacramento area who works for CAL FIRE.

It’s odd, or maybe that is why ABC contacted Dick, because he wrote an article for the March/April 2005 issue of Wildfire, a magazine published by the IAWF, titled *Terrorists in the Woods, about the potential for terrorists to set vegetation fires in wildland areas. In the article he mentioned that police and structural fire departments receive funding for the possibility of terror-related incidents, but the land management agencies receive little or nothing to plan for or prevent threats such as these.

(*UPDATE December 23, 2017: The link to the article in the March/April 2005 issue of Wildfire Magazine no longer works, but we found a copy of it and added the entire piece below.)


From the President’s Desk
Dick Mangan
President, International Association of Wildland Fire

Terrorists in the Woods

Ever since September 11, 2001 the focus of much of the world has been fixated on the issue of Terrorism! The tragic deaths of thousands of Americans in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC, coupled with hundreds of deaths in Spain and Bali at the hands of terrorists has led to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, and the expenditure of billions of dollars (that’s billions with a capital “B”) to improve security and reduce the risks from terrorists and their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

The massive increases in the US budget for protection from terrorism has been mostly sent to Police and Structural Fire Departments. But, wait: what about the threat of terrorist-caused wildland fires in our forests, community watersheds and wildland-urban interface? Who’s worried about that threat, what are they doing about it, and how much is being spent to fund the efforts to prevent it?

The history of fire being used as a tool of warfare is well documented: Native Americans used fire against their enemies, both other tribes and against the expanding European whites; the Aboriginal people of Australia also used fire to discourage the incursion of the British settlers onto their island.

In World War II, the Japanese launched “fire balloons” against the western US, and while largely unsuccessful, did start a few fires, and killed 6 citizens in Oregon. The Palestinians in the latter half of the 20th century used fire to try and destroy the carefully planted pine plantations in Israel.

Now, in the beginning years of the 21st century, more and more folks are moving into the wildland-urban interface. Even under the best of conditions, when a single ignition occurs under critical fire conditions, hundreds and thousands of citizens are threatened with entrapment, injury or death from rapidly spreading fires. Imagine if a small band of determined terrorists, with only some basic fire weather and fire behavior training like we teach in S-190, decided to set multiple ignitions in some our most vulnerable areas, like heavily populated valley bottoms with limited egress/access and a heavy, dry fuel loading at the peak of the burning period?

There are many such areas around the world, in the foothills of Andalusia in Spain; outside of Sydney and Melbourne, Australia; and in numerous areas of the US from Florida to the Pine Barrens of New York, to the foothills surrounding Los Angeles. Even my own home town of Missoula, Montana has areas that fit all the above criteria, and is surely at risk under the wrong combination of weather conditions and a committed terrorist with fire on his mind. And any of us who have traveled to areas like Red Bird, Kentucky in the fall season when the “woods-burners” are out in force have an appreciation of “domestic terrorism” at work, often successfully!

The real question that lingers for fire managers at risk from terrorists is what are you planning to do to prevent terrorist-ignited wildfires that are intended to destroy resources, kill innocent civilians, and disrupt normal life? And, are you prepared to deal with multiple terrorist-ignited wildfires under the worst possible conditions? And for our legislators in the countries that are being targeted by terrorists, what are YOU going to do to insure that the wildland fire agencies in your areas are trained, equipped and financed to address these threats?

The clock is ticking, and its probably a matter of “when” rather than “if” such events, so where do we go from here??

USFS appoints a Marine as Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation

We were surprised when the U.S. Forest Service appointed a person with no on-the-ground fire experience to be Deputy Regional Forester for Fire and Aviation Management in the California Region. That trend is continuing, but at a higher level.

Robert Baird
Robert Baird

Robert Baird has accepted the position of Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation Management in Washington, D.C. for the U.S. Forest Service. Mr. Baird is currently the Branch Head, Center for Irregular Warfare, US Marine Corps, in Quantico, Virginia.

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS, told us that in his new position Mr. Baird will supervise the following functions:

  • Washington Office-State and Private Forestry / Fire and Aviation Management Assistant Director for Fire Operations located at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho;
  • Washington Office-S&PF/FAM Assistant Director for Risk Management located at NIFC;
  • Washington Office-S&PF/FAM Assistant Director for Aviation located in Washington, D.C.

Mr.Baird will report to WO-S&PF/FAM Director Tom Harbour.

HERE is a link to the organizational chart for USFS Fire and Aviation Management in the Washington Office. (If it is sideways, in Adobe Reader, click View/Rotate.) The chart was current as of May 11, 2011 and shows Rich Kvale in the Deputy Director position, who is being replaced by Mr. Baird.

On his Linkedin page, Mr. Baird describes his present duties as: “Explore, Develop, Coordinate, Plan, and Integrate IW Concepts for the Marine Corps”. From a brief bio that was provided for an event in 2010, his experience included:

  • Planner in Afghanistan for special operations integration and implementation
  • Planner in Iraq to establish initial Iraqi police capability in one province
  • Director of Operations for the Marine Corps University/Education Command
  • Lead planner for I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) rapid response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita
  • Chief of Plans for I MEF
  • He obtained a Masters of Operational Studies from Marine Corps University

Mr. Baird is also a former seasonal police officer for Ocean City, Maryland.

He has written a paper titled Profiles in Pyroterrorism: Convergence of crime, terrorism and wildfire unleash as a weapon on population. Wildfire comes up another time in his profile on Linkedin where he said he “Planned for Wildland Fire Fighting contingency mission, served in MCB Emergency Ops Center, and personally supported displacement of Div Cmd Post due to wildfire.”

We very much support the concept of hiring veterans and have highlighted such programs in the past, but we would be more comfortable if the person who is second in command in USFS Fire and Aviation Management had more wildland fire experience and knowledge than we have seen listed for Mr. Baird.

Thanks go out to Dick