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

Fish starts fire

Fire investigators and workers at the Grand Electric Company in Bison, South Dakota concluded that one or more fish started the Shadehill fire that began at the base of a power pole in the Fall of 2012. Well, indirectly anyway. After examining the remains of broiled fish lying across a transformer bushing, an arrestor, and other hardware on the pole, the best theory they could come up with was that a bird, a raptor, carried the fish to the pole and dropped one of them which started a phase to phase ground.

Shadehill Fire
Shadehill Fire near Bison, SD, Fall, 2012

We added this to our Animal Arson series.


Thanks go out to Todd

Mice guilty of arson but cleared of manslaugher

mouseAt first it appeared that a fire caused by mice chewing a refrigerator’s power cord were responsible for the death of Linda Wyatt, 55, who was found badly burned and dead, slumped against the appliance in her home in London, England. But an autopsy revealed that Ms. Wyatt’s airway showed no evidence of the inhalation of fire products. The coroner found that she died of coronary artery disease, and may have collapsed and passed away after discovering the blaze. The fire was most likely a coincidence, or at worst a contributing factor. So for now, the mice are off the hook.

More details about the fatality are at Court News UK.

We are adding this incident to our Animal Arson series.

Squirrel causes vehicle fire

Vehicle fire south of Wind Cave National Park
Vehicle fire south of Wind Cave National Park, 1:15 p.m. MT, September 26, 2012. Wildfire Today photo by Bill Gabbert

Wednesday afternoon an older couple was driving their Dodge pickup truck on US Highway 385 just south of Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota when they smelled smoke. The driver told us that it smelled like a forest fire but they could not see any nearby — until the interior of the truck filled with smoke. They pulled over and called 911 on their cell phone and then stood on the side of the road several hundred feet away with their two dogs as the truck burned, waiting for what they thought was the inevitable explosion — just like they have seen so many times in movies.

Vehicle fire south of Wind Cave National Park

When they received the dispatch to the fire the engine crew from Wind Cave was only about four miles away doing some training. Already wearing their Nomex shirts, they responded in Engine 628 (the white truck) and saw that the burning vehicle was on the side of the road parked at a driveway, which provided more clearance than if the truck had stopped anywhere else. With the strong wind that was blowing, one burning ember in the grass alongside the road and the fire would have been over the hill quickly. The National Park Service engine crew quickly knocked down the fire, keeping it from spreading into the vegetation, and then turned it over to firefighters from Hot Springs when they arrived from their station about 6 miles away.

Congratulations to the Wind Cave crew for preventing what could have become a large vegetation fire. The weather at the Elk Mountain weather station a few miles away recorded a 10 mph wind with gusts up to 22 at the time of the fire. Darren Clabo, a fire meteorologist for the state of South Dakota, sent out this tweet earlier today:

Extreme Fire Danger for many West River counties today. Gusty southeast winds with RHs falling below 20%


Vehicle fire south of Wind Cave National Park

The occupants told us that after they pulled over they saw pine cones dropping out of the engine compartment as the truck burned. They figured that while they had been camping, a squirrel had designated their truck as a storage facility for its’ winter food supply. The pine cones must have been close to an exhaust pipe which caused them to ignite.

After I downloaded these images I noticed some pine cones in the picture above. Below is an enlargement of the area below the truck’s engine, with arrows pointing out some of the pine cones that were still recognizable.

Pine cones at vehicle fire south of Wind Cave National Park
Pine cones at vehicle fire south of Wind Cave National Park (click to enlarge)

We are adding this to our articles that are tagged “animal arson” — the 10th in the series — so far.

Burning coyote, becomes burning hound, becomes wildfire

We will add this to our Animal Arson series.

Last Spring in Arkansas Missouri:


“Only in the Ozarks: We had a fire in Carter County yesterday just East of Van Buren and on the fire report the cause we listed it as debris burning. Well this cause doesn’t give the whole story justice: Well so here it goes, the landowner was burning a dead coyote in his front yard nothing real unusual about that but slightly on the edge of normal for Carter county. Now we’re getting to the details, the landowner had several hounds running around that had a mange problem. The landowner decided that he would treat them with used motor oil and a few other liquids, now you see where this is going. Well one of the treated dogs got too close to the burning coyote and burst into flames. This treated flaming hound then took off across a field thus setting it on fire during a red flag day. But luck was on our side as it didn’t take long for the flaming hound to burn out thus keeping our wildfire acres to a manageable size from this arson hound.”