January 03, 2006
Texas Fires, Human Error, and Media Coverage
Posted by Christine Hurt

Being from Texas and having drivenTexasbrush  around Texas last week, I am slightly more interested in the Texas (and Oklahoma and now New Mexico) fires than some people.  The loss is enormous:  hundreds of thousands of acres of land, over 250 homes burned, and four deaths.  Because I have been reading various accounts of these fires, I have been struck with the almost universal silence on the "human error" element of this story.  Fires are generally not confined to "acts of God" in the sense that they only strike out of the blue, like a hurricane or a tsunami.  Some fires may be caused by a chance event, such as a power line spark, but these fires that are happening were for the most part the result of some original act by a human.  Texas State Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado has said that he "believes most of these fires were the result of some human action."  However, in the news accounts, you have to dig fairly deep before any reporter is asking about or reporting information about human error.

For example, here are the NYT, Houston Chronicle, CNN, and ABC News accounts, none of which mention human error (as they did not yesterday).  The only references I could find to the human error in print were from the Guardian and the Austin-American Statesman.  I did hear on a local radio news program in Texas on December 27th that a fire that was being discussed was started by a child setting off a firecracker (the speaker was Traci Weaver of the Texas Forest Service) and I heard on NPR yesterday a local mayor (and volunteer firefighter) in Eastland County being pressed into saying that it looked like from the start point of the fire there that it was caused by someone throwing a cigarette out of a car along the highway.

I find it interesting that the media seems so uninterested in the cause of the fires.  The media focuses on the high winds, low humidity, drought conditions, and high temperatures, but these are factors that lead to the rapid spread of the fire and the difficulty of containing the fire, not the factors that caused these fires.  During Hurricane Katrina, questions were swirling in the media -- Why didn't people evacuate?  Why weren't they forced to evacuate?  Who decided to have inferior levees?  Who could have prevented this?  Why isn't anyone asking these questions about the Texas fires?

I heard Forestry spokesperson Weaver say (on Dec. 27th) that only half of the counties in Texas had imposed burn bans at that time.  Why isn't anyone asking whether these counties affected were under a burn ban?  And, if so, then who violated the burn ban?  What is the penalty for violating the burn ban?  Can one child (or the child's parents) be liable for 120 houses for setting off a firecracker during a burn ban?  If the affected counties weren't under a burn an, then why not?  Why isn't anyone asking these questions?

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Comments (14)

1. Posted by rastajenk on January 4, 2006 @ 6:25 | Permalink

Speaking of human error and pack media, swallow hard and examine the goings-on in West Virginia. They're going make a villain out of the mining company president, but it was their own rush to scoopage w/o fact-checking that contributed to much of the bizarre chain of events.

2. Posted by Easycure on January 4, 2006 @ 7:36 | Permalink

The questions aren't being asked because it can't be proven that the kid with a firecracker is a Republican. If he was the great-grandchild of a Bush or a Reagan, the press would be all over it.

3. Posted by Frank H on January 4, 2006 @ 7:51 | Permalink

Being in the northeast, my interest in the story is limited: I care about those afflicted, but, well, it's pretty far away. But the thing is, I do recall hearing on several broadcasts, warnings about the use of fireworks and their potential to start/spread fires.

There is an unusual weather pattern afoot; things being so unusually dry. But whatever it is, it's existence must contribute to the refutation of artificial global warming, otherwise, the media'd be all over it.

Oh yeah, and it does occur to me that most of the victims might be white, which would explain why Calypso Louis hasn't claimed that it was set by the KKK or the Israelis.

4. Posted by Melissa Clouthier on January 4, 2006 @ 8:04 | Permalink

Could it be that the media won't cover a huge Texas loss because Texas, that red-necked Red State deserves it whereas New Orleans is the seat of "culture and jazz and crawfish" and, oops! Lots of Democrats!

I've only been in Texas for eight years, but my time here sure makes me wonder.

5. Posted by bman on January 4, 2006 @ 8:46 | Permalink

Greetings from fly over country. One of the most common fire starters is the catalytic converters on pickup trucks. When it is as dry as it is right now the grass is ignited just by contact with the converter. There are pickups traversing the region checking pumping stations and feeding cattle. That is why the fires are so spread out.

6. Posted by marc on January 4, 2006 @ 11:08 | Permalink

I usually have the opposite reaction to our local wildfire coverage in California. If on your morning drive you saw fields and mountains covered with nothing but sticks of dynamite and you then read that some houses were blown up would you rather read about who tossed the lit cigarette or how all the dynamite came to be there in the first place and why people built communities in the middle of it. California press and government tend to focus on the cigarette throwers and firebugs rather than the developers. (Nothing wrong with developing in a wildfire zone, just don't ask me to pay.) It is very much like the Katrina coverage. It's kind of refreshing to read that at least this once journalist aren't looking to assign blame for a natural disaster.

In these cases (living in areas guaranteed to have natural disasters) journalists shouldn't be asking why levees fail or smokers smoke. They should be asking why people build where they do given that fires and floods will happen with or without human agents. They should be asking what is spent fighting the fire. How many first responders lives are put in jeopardy, and what other lives are put in jeopardy because first responders are out fighting wildfires. They should ask what kind of plans developers made for wildfires when they first built and if they made no plans they should ask about the relationships between those developers and county governments.

7. Posted by Kickero on January 4, 2006 @ 12:44 | Permalink

The reason no one is going to be assigning blame on the developers in the case of the wildfires is that many of these towns suffer from the same fundamental flaw that New Orleans has--being built a long time ago in a dangerous location.

You can't ask questions about the developers in toto because the developers...were all individual settlers.

And many of the people in these small towns (Population < 200) are too poor to move.
There is little to say about these things, and much to do.

Now, if you want to talk about reducing the risks of accidentally setting off a wildfire (Such as modifying the catalytic converters or something), fruitful discourse may occur.

8. Posted by marc on January 4, 2006 @ 13:48 | Permalink

Kickero, agreed. I didn't mean to imply that it was necessarily wrong or bad to build in high risk areas. General benefits of an area - arable land and water, beautiful climate - may outweigh infrequent costs. Clearly in the case of older communities, some of the costs weren't known at the time. (Though in New Orleans case, they've been well known since the 18th century if not earlier.)

My point is simply that criticising the press for failing to uselessly search for someone to blame in this one case, has it exactly backwards. The headline I'd like to have seen: "Predictably, CAT4 Hurricane floods New Orleans - Residents demand accountability for inept evacuation."

9. Posted by Bob on January 4, 2006 @ 14:52 | Permalink

I agree with Melissa. The MSM doesn't make a big deal of it because those affected aren't (largely) Democrats, thus their problems won't energize their Democrat base.

10. Posted by red river on January 4, 2006 @ 15:01 | Permalink

Pretty good comments, except most are wrong or misinformed.

As a rancher with a lot of dry grass, as someone who lives in the county under fire threat, and a trained wildland fire fighter, I'd like to weigh in.

First, fires in extreme fire weather are very sudden. Most start from welders or cigarrettes or people burning trash. In hot, dry windy conditions - it takes just seconds for a spark to turn into a very large, fast-moving fire that cannot be stopped without some sort of natural barrier.

Next, the smoke from a fast moving grass fire obscures observation, so not even fire fighters driving around can tell where the head of the fire is and where it is going. This makes fighting it very dangerous as men and machines can be surrounded by thirty-foot high flames and two-thousand degree air in seconds.

Third, when fires cross Fire Department Boundaries and the situation is very fluid as with large grass fires, its very hard in the first thirty minutes for incident command ( command and control) to develop a picture of the fire and to effectively deploy resources. The initial attack elements almost always act to protect lives and then homes from the fire - which lets the fire grow more.

Fourth, when the wind is high and its very dry and the fuel is thick, extreme fire behavior occurs - fire whirls - think of fiery dust devils - will form and throw burning debris hundreds of yards from the fire. Fire will race through the grass then climb and burn through the canopy of trees that have no leaves then jump back down to the grass.

Fifth, the fire is not your family barbeque - its a wall of flame three stories high laid over at a 45 degree angle racing faster than you can run. Its burning through fields full of ditches and barbed wire and trees that will stop and trap most trucks. Its a very deadly thing.

So, in short, once it gets going, its a doosy to deal with.

The effectiveness of burn bans depends on the fire weather and the depth of the burn ban. Two factors combine to make fire weather extreme - probablity of ignition and wind. If you drop a spark into grass and it catches every time - that's 100% ignition. You need lots of heat and very dry air to make this occur. Wind will fan the flames and turn a small burn into something that cannot be stopped.

Some burn bans only ban outside burning of trash - others ban all outside heat sources including welders. Here in my county and the ones surrouding it - the burn ban is total.

The bad fires can only exist in a small window of time where weather creates the perfect conditions.

Catalytic converters are an old wives tale. As I mentioned before - its welders, cigarretes, and outside fires that are the main culprits. Many of the fire trucks, called brush trucks, are gas with catalytic converters and we drive through fuels all the time. Never seen a fire behind me!

As for the fuel - grass is life. You never have enough of it. You can and many people do plow a firebreak, but sometimes this still is not enough. And it extreme fire weather, grass just an inch high will burn hot and fast.

Fire does not destroy ranchland. True, the grass is lost, but it will grow back. And it usually is much more nutritious than what was there before. The fire will also kill trees and cedar which suck a lot of moisture from the ground. Many ranchers burn their grass in the late winter to stimulate its growth and to kill trees - but they pick a better day to do it.

There is nothing dangerous about living in a sea of grass. You just have to manage your firebreaks.

As for people being too poor to move - most own their own home and many own millions of dollars of land and cattle. They might tell you to kiss their ass.

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