The Dumbest Causes of Wildfires

There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, mix yourself a glass of LMNT Recharge, and take notes as we look at how dumb people are with flames in nature. Powered by LMNT.

Smokey Bear made his first appearance for the Forest Service in 1944. According to NPR, Smokey is the longest-running public service ad campaign in the country. “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires,” his original poster warned.

Over 75 years later, the data still agrees with Smokey—a recent study showed that 85% of wildfires are human caused. Campfires and controlled burns that get out of control are the most common causes, but there’s no shortage of human negligence with flames in nature. Here are some of the dumbest ways people have burned forests.

Drunk Cigarette
Smoking is the third most common way humans start wildfires, but one specific story takes the cake for stupidity. In 2000, Janice Stevenson started a blaze in the Black Hills of South Dakota that burned 83,000 acres (7% of the Black Hills National Forest).

The fire began when Stevenson pulled over on the side of Highway 16 to urinate after an afternoon of day drinking. When she finished her business, Stevenson lit a cigarette and dropped the match onto a carpet of dry grass and pine needles. She watched the small fire build then drove away without alerting anyone.

The fire burned for about a week, causing $42 million in damage and costing $9 million to fight. Stevenson was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but many felt it wasn’t enough because she admitted to intentionally starting three fires years earlier in Wyoming.

“She’s a fire bug,” Assistant Attorney General Paul Bachand said during her sentencing. “She likes to start fires. The longer she stays in prison, the safer society is.”

Gender Reveal
In early September of this year, a gender reveal party that employed a “pyrotechnic device” started the El Dorado Fire in California that’s still active as of this publishing. The blaze started as a small grass fire that party goers fruitlessly tried to put out with water bottles. It’s now over 22,000 acres and took the life of firefighter Charles Morton.

Having déjà vu? This probably sounds similar to a 2017 wildfire that started after a border patrol agent in Arizona shot blue tannerite to announce the gender of his soon-to-be baby boy. That fire burned 45,000 acres of arid landscape and caused $8 million in damage.

Blogger Jenna Karvunidis, who is credited for creating the concept of a gender reveal party, condemned these over-the-top events on her Facebook page earlier this month.

“Stop it,” Karvunidis wrote. “Stop having these stupid parties. For the love of God, stop burning things down to tell everyone about your kid’s penis. No one cares but you.”

Hot Tub Installation
In 2015, the Valley Fire that raged through Napa and Sonoma counties near San Francisco burned 76,000 acres and caused $57 million in damage. The wildfire killed four people and claimed 1,300 homes, becoming the third most destructive wildfire in state history.

It wasn’t until a year later that investigators revealed the cause of the blaze: faulty wiring on a hot tub. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a copper wire on the spa overheated and sparked to nearby brush. An electrical engineer determined that the connection was loose and not up to code.

“I found no records the electrical circuit was installed under the required building permit,” said Deputy Chief James Engel in the report. “The homeowner admitted to installing the circuit to power a hot tub located on the side porch.”

Mowing the Lawn
During fire season, it’s not uncommon for restrictions to be put on campfires, burning garbage, torching ditches, shooting fireworks, and other high-risk activities. For homeowners in the Stouts Creek area of Oregon in 2015, county officials also mandated that you couldn’t mow the lawn between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Two residents defied the order and cut their grass on July 30, which investigators said started a forest fire that destroyed 25,000 acres. The 64-year-old and 70-year-old homeowners were initially given small fines for mowing when they weren’t supposed to, but officials later billed them for the $37 million it cost to battle the blaze.

A decade earlier in California, a fire that destroyed 80 homes and 11,000 acres was started by the same cause. That homeowner was charged with arson and sentenced to four years in prison. Breaking the law to mow your lawn is the kind of rebellion that only a dad could understand.

For Facebook
In 2016, an aspiring weatherman with a couple thousand Facebook followers wanted to boost his profile with a viral video. To do so, Johnny Mullins started a fire near Wheaton Hollow in Kentucky and went live on Facebook to narrate the burn. Firefighters arrived a short time later and put out the blaze before it got big.

It was easy for officials to determine when, where, and who started the fire thanks for Mullins being at the scene. He was swiftly charged with second-degree arson.

“He likes to do Facebook videos and have people follow him on his ‘weather forecast,’” police chief James Stephens told the Associated Press. “He enjoyed the attention he got from the Facebook stuff. It’s really too bad because he’s not a bad kid—he’s just misguided.”

Job Security and Rescue
Alright, this last one is a twofer of stupidity. Buckle up.

In 2002, Leonard Gregg started a brush fire on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona. Gregg worked as a seasonal firefighter for the tribe and hoped that the wildfire would help him land a full-time job on their quick-response fire crew. Instead, it got him arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

But while the Rodeo Fire was moving through the desert, a local got stranded in her car after running out of gas. In an attempt to get the attention of a news helicopter covering the wildfire that Gregg started, Vallinda Jo Elliot started a fire of her own. Although Elliot was rescued, the Chedeski Peak Fire she lit eventually met with the Rodeo Fire Gregg lit and wiped out 467 homes and 470,000 acres.

Forestry officials said it’d take hundreds of years for the forest to recover from the overwhelming damage. It’s the third largest wildfire in state history, but easily the dumbest wildfire of all time.

Feature graphic via Hunter Spencer.

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