Clare Frank: We suffer too many fools who start wildfires

With so much smoke polluting the air so early in the fire season, we should finally stop thinking of wildfires as out of our control.

BC-OPINION-FRANK-WILDFIRE-START-ART-NYTSF— The Caldor fire burning in the Eldorado National Forest near Pollock Pines, California, in 2021. (Max Whittaker for The New York Times) — ONLY FOR USE WITH ARTICLE SLUGGED — BC-OPINION-FRANK-WILDFIRE-START-ART-NYTSF — OTHER USE PROHIBITED.

Genoa, Nev. • Thick gray wildfire smoke is pouring down from Canada into the Northeast this week, but it may have a silver lining. Every summer and fall, wildfires in America wreck homes, air quality and lives. While many of the current fires in Canada were caused by lightning that landed on dry forests, here in the States, lightning is rarely the culprit. An astonishing 80 percent are caused by human carelessness. That means they could have been prevented with smarter behavior in our increasingly flammable wildlands. With so much smoke polluting the air so early in the fire season, maybe we can finally stop thinking of wildfires as out of our control.

In the American West, evidence of fire foolishness is all around us. Nearly two years ago, the Caldor fire was allegedly started by a father and son who appear to have gone out shooting in a dry forest during California’s peak fire season, while smoke from the massive Dixie fire still hung heavy in the air. The Caldor fire scorched nearly 222,000 acres, destroyed 1,005 structures, injured multiple people and sent my husband and me packing ahead of the evacuation order.

When I drive past the moonscaped mountains and blackened tree skeletons where lush green forest used to be before the fire, I still get sad, then mad.

Lives lost. Landscapes destroyed. Habitats gone. And yet, we continue to find new ways to be fire-foolish in the wildlands. A gender-reveal party with a pyrotechnic smoke bomb on a high-heat, low-humidity day. A couple of campers whose plan to leave no trace went awry when they decided to light their excrement on fire. Marital bliss celebrated with the release of sky lanterns.

Those were the one-offs. Then there are the more common careless activities like when dirt bikers remove spark arresters for more power, homeowners try to smoke out wasp nests and revelers take fireworks into parched hills on red-flag fire days. The list is too long. But it all comes down to one thing: disregard for dangerous fire conditions that are clearly becoming more frequent from climate change.

If we look at California’s “top 10 most destructive fires,” eight were caused unintentionally — more than half of them in the last 10 years. Of the “top 10 deadliest,” six were unintentional, and they killed 169 people. A month before Caldor started, the unintentionally ignited Dixie fire raged for 104 days. By the end of October 2021, the two fires had incinerated over 1.1 million acres, an equivalent to a two-lane highway stretching over 400,000 miles — a drive around the earth’s circumference more than 16 times.

Too often, we treat fire foolishness with sympathy instead of accountability. “It was an accident.” “Mistakes happen.” “Who could have known?” My personal favorite is blame shifting; “It was an act of God.” I’ve heard utility companies use this as their go-to refrain when predictable regional winds down powerlines into dry grass at the base of poles no one bothered to clear around.

We don’t have to just shrug this nonsense off. We can charge people who start fires with reckless arson. It’s one of the few tools government officials have to address Americans’ abominable disregard for fire risk. The father and son involved in the Caldor fire have been charged with reckless arson, and their preliminary hearing begins in August. At Cal Fire, one of the largest fire agencies in the country, I could use a civil statute to recoup the costs of fighting fires in instances when the negligence was not criminal. But most departments don’t have the investigators or lawyers to pursue these lawsuits, so the fire starters go unpunished, maybe even unnoticed.

What fire agencies do have are weak, underfunded awareness campaigns to deter unwitting fire setters. Smokey Bear’s mantra “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” might have had traction at some point. But the shopworn spokesbear is now just a nostalgic cartoon character.

And the latest campaign, “One Less Spark, One Less Wildfire,” still falls short. The messages are sound: Douse campfires, tighten trailer chains so they don’t spark on asphalt, mow early and not where the blade can strike rocks, have fire suppression tools at the ready for debris burns and practice safe target shooting. But happy graphics and a gentle ask — just one less spark — don’t provide the gut punch we need.

That’s because messing around with sparks in natural areas may just be riskier than it’s ever been in our lifetimes. Many states have experienced a significant increase in the number of hot, dry, windy days that present the most danger. Our wildlands are turning into a minefield, but we don’t care where we step.

We can do better. We’ve figured out seatbelts, tornado shelters, safe sex, tobacco reduction and helmets. We can figure this out too.

In the case of wildfire, maybe it starts by replacing friendly cartoon reminders with images of the apocalyptic destruction and words from those who have lost homes, livelihoods, and loved ones — and maybe not just when there’s smoke in the air. One of the most effective DUI campaigns summoned everyone to duty. What if we co-opted it: Friends Don’t Let Friends Set Fires.

So if a group of people decides to go shooting in dry woods on a hot day, maybe one of them thinks to bring a fire extinguisher and shovel. Maybe someone else remembers to wet the ground where hot projectiles might land. Maybe another thinks it might be better to go to an indoor range that day.

If the district attorney’s office prevails in the Caldor fire case, I bet the father-son duo will wish that we as a society had demanded a higher level of fire vigilance before that fateful day in the woods. It’s too late for this patch of land, the thousand destroyed homes, the firefighter’s skin that burned and had to be grafted back.

But it’s not too late to alter our future. We can pay attention to what is happening today in Canada’s forests so the same won’t happen in ours tomorrow. Imagine it: A nonpartisan way to save lives, homes, habitats and tax dollars, with a simple refusal to suffer fire foolishness.

Clare Frank served as California’s first female chief of fire protection and is the author of “Burnt: A Memoir of Fighting Fire.”