Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on November 1, 2016.

Watching the world burn

Addressing the problem of arson and wildland/urban interface fires

BY LUCIAN DEATON

THE CHASE WAS ON to catch an arsonist in the act. Using a planted GPS device, police tracked a suspect’s vehicle as it travelled along a country road in Lake County, California, on the afternoon of August 13. They watched as the vehicle briefly slowed to 11 mph, then sped off. Minutes later, what became known as the Clayton Fire ignited in the vicinity of the slowdown. Three miles north, the car stopped for two minutes at a vista that provided a perfect view of the growing blaze.

When it was finally controlled 13 days later, the Clayton Fire had consumed nearly 4,000 acres and destroyed over 300 structures. Police believe it started when the accused, a man named Damin Pashilk, slowed down to toss a lit match or burning piece of paper out the vehicle window into the dry grass. He was arrested soon after and in September pleaded not guilty to 17 felony counts of arson. In court, police revealed they had been tracking Pashilk for more than a year and suspected him of setting a dozen other fires in the area dating back to the summer of 2015.

In reading all of this, I was struck by what would motivate someone to set a fire, and what, if anything, can be done to prevent it. Arson, often thought of as an urban issue, is also prevalent in wildland/urban interface and can be much more destructive.

According to Cal Fire, from 2010 to 2014, arsonists set approximately 910 wildfires in California alone, about 6 percent of the state’s total. Those fires consumed more than 121,000 acres. While the U.S. Forest Service says that 90 percent of wildfires across the nation are human caused, the vast majority of those are the result of negligence, not intent—forgotten campfires or sparks from target-practice bullets don’t count as wildfire arson. Arson is a purposeful act.

In August, Ed Nordskog, a former arson investigator, told the Sacramento Bee that differences do exist between urban and wildfire arsonists in terms of methods used, but the underlying psychology—hero seeking, fire watching, isolation, anger—is the same. Bob Duval, a fire investigator and NFPA’s Northeast Regional director, has a similar perspective: An arsonist is an arsonist is an arsonist, he says, and mental health issues are typically behind every arsonist regardless of where they’re setting fires.

While Nordskog concluded in the Bee article that “arson is not a preventable crime,” given the impact of such fires this summer, I think it is worth asking if the motivations of lurking arsonists can be addressed before their fires consume all the attention.

Work is being done to try. Juvenile firesetter programs, managed by state fire marshal agencies, exist in states throughout the country. These programs seek to address the anti-social behaviors of youth who start with matches and graduate to dumpsters and eventually buildings and forests. On its website, NFPA has tips for preventing youth firesetting, and NFPA standards provide training requirements for youth firesetter instructors.

Chapter 28 in NFPA 921, Fire and Explosion Investigations, details wildfire investigation cause and origin methodology, helping investigators determine if foul play was involved. The technical committee for NFPA 921 is considering expanding the chapter for the 2020 edition of the guide and is working with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a multi-agency federal board that develops wildland fire operations standards. Having better information on how many wildfires were caused by arson and how they were set will inform future outreach and prevention efforts.

With the amount of dry land across the planet increasing, someone with a match can cause more damage today than ever before. We can’t just stand by and hope for the best.

LUCIAN DEATON is a project manager in NFPA’s Wildfire Division.