There are two things that outraged Arizonans can learn from a video that shows the start of the 47,000-acre Sawmill Fire, which caused more than $8 million in damage and took 800 firefighters a week to get under control:
- Explosives will immediately ignite tall grass and spread flames over a parched Arizona landscape, with devastating effects.
- Dennis Dickey’s baby is a boy.
Authorities had already revealed the eye-rolling reason behind the massive 2017 wildfire: a Border Patrol agent’s gender reveal party — with a guest appearance by the explosive Tannerite — that went wrong in a flash.
But for more than a year, the U.S. Forest Service refused to release the video of the genesis of a fire the size of American Samoa. A witness hoping to capture the gender reveal on camera caught frames of the quickly spreading flames, and the Arizona Star filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the clip.
Dickey, an off-duty Border Patrol agent celebrating his wife's pregnancy near Green Valley, Arizona, has said he was the one who filled a target with Tannerite and a colored powder and fired a rifle, thus sparking the blaze. He pleaded guilty in federal court on Sept. 27, but he did not mention the gender of his child.
But now, the world can see a frame-by-frame breakdown of the moment the gender reveal went wrong. A rifle can be heard firing, there is a faint burst of blue powder, and then the flames ignite the dry grass and nearby mesquite trees. A man screams, apparently to other guests: "Start packing up! Start packing up!"
Tannerite, which Dickey used to pack his surprise, is a legal explosive that is a favorite of some shooting buffs. Hitting a target filled with Tannerite with a bullet rewards the shooter with a boom. As The Washington Post's Alex Horton wrote: "Blowing up large amounts of Tannerite is its own YouTube genre. In one video, a group of enthusiasts gathered 164 pounds of Tannerite in a plastic bin and stuck it inside an abandoned barn, as explained by a man wearing a Richard Nixon mask, sunglasses and ear protection. The barn is obliterated in the video."
There are also videos of Tannerite destroying a 425-pound pumpkin, a beaver dam, a turkey and any number of junked cars. Dickey wasn't even the first one to use Tannerite in a gender reveal.
But the Border Patrol agent's plan was doomed from the start. That section of Arizona was full of dry brush thanks to a period of lower-than-average rainfall, as partygoers quickly learned. Unusually high winds also whipped the flames across what is essentially a tinder box.
Dickey, now 37, immediately reported the fire to law enforcement and said he had been responsible for starting it, court documents say. He was charged with violating U.S. Forest Service regulations by causing a fire without a permit, a misdemeanor offense.
Since gender-reveal videos began appearing on YouTube roughly a decade ago, expectant parents have been coming up with increasingly creative ways to tell the world they're having a boy or a girl: skydiving while letting loose colored smoke, a house-size Rube Goldberg machine that took three days to set up and a person dancing inside a gigantic baby costume.
In the summer, a Louisiana man brought out a live alligator at his wife's gender-reveal party and placed a watermelon in its mouth. When the gator snapped its jaws, the watermelon exploded, spilling blue Jell-O onto the grass. Although no one was harmed, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries later warned people not to try the same trick at home.
That same advice would seem to apply to anyone planning to set off a celebratory blue explosion in an area prone to wildfires.
As part of his plea agreement, Dickey will star in a public service announcement created in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. He will spend five years on probation and has agreed to pay restitution totaling $8,188,069, the U.S. attorney's office said in a news release.
During the court appearance in which he was sentenced, Dickey told the judge the fire “was a complete accident,” the Daily Star reported. He added: “I feel absolutely horrible about it. It was probably one of the worst days of my life.”