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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