As if lightning, electric sparks, and other accidental ignitions aren't enough to set off what has become the great Texas tinderbox, the historic wildfires that have burned 2,500 square miles have also put more focus on a peculiar culture of casual fire-handling and arson in America's back roads.
A majority of the 8,000 fires that have beset the Lone Star State since the start of the year were set by hand, either on purpose or unintentionally, the Texas Forest Service said on Tuesday. Reacting to a fire near the capital of Austin that started after a homeless man left a campfire unattended, Gov. Rick Perry (R) acknowledged the problem this week, saying he would like to see the Legislature increase the maximum state penalty for arson from 30 years to life in prison.
“Having increased penalties, I can support,” Governor Perry said. “Someone, I don't care if they're homeless or what, if they set a fire, the punishment needs to be stiff. You're talking about losing people's lives with these fires.”
According to estimates from the United States Fire Administration, 316,000 fires – or about 40 percent of the national annual total – are set by hand each year, with the majority occurring in open fields or woods. The problem is compounded in rural states like Texas, where trash burning remains a common practice and where rural boredom and drunkenness can drive thrill-seekers to put match to grass.
Only about 4 in 100 fires were arson-related in Texas between 2006 and 2010, but the number may be far higher this year. Tallies may be difficult to come by, however, since the fires often incinerate any evidence of a human role.
Still, whether it's copycat arsonists or residents failing to appreciate the dry conditions, the likes of which haven't been since 1917, the Texas Forest Service says the massive, fast-moving conflagrations have too often been set by hand. The fires have destroyed more than 250 homes and threatened more than 8,000.
"Arson tends to be cyclical, with more cases some years than others, and we are definitely seeing an increase in cases this year," Don Poovey, assistant chief of law enforcement for the Texas Forest Service, told the Abilene Reporter-News last week.
Under current Texas law, even unintentionally set wildfires can be deemed arson if investigators can prove that the fire-starters exhibited reckless disregard for the safety of people and property.
Deliberately set fires and careless trash burning are frustrating some 1,500 firefighters currently working a series of large, out-of-control fires that span from the New Mexico to Louisiana borders. Dozens of new fires are flaring up every day as unusually dry conditions, a large amount of fuel in the form of winter-cured brush and grass, and high winds have all come together.
"We have some arson problems in Texas scattered around, and that's not helping us at all," says Marq Webb, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service. "We've also got a lot of people who have burned [trash] all their life who think it's OK to still go out and burn, and you can't do that right now. The conditions are like we've never seen it."
In Palo Pinto County, an eyewitness report of a truck close to one fire led to the arrest of a man who said he set 11 fires around the county because he was bored and intoxicated. Police also arrested two men in Newton County for starting at least one recent wildfire.
Also, hunters have been known to accidentally start fires as they burn brush around their deer stands for better visibility. And fence welders have been implicated in some of the recent conflagrations.
As for the homeless man in Austin, he is in jail on a $50,000 bond. He had left the campfire unattended to go get beer, and the fire spread, enveloping 100 acres and damaging more than a dozen homes in south Austin.
Even volunteer firefighters, often younger ones, have been implicated in some past fires.
"Some of these new guys want to 'squirt some wet stuff on some red stuff,' so they set a little fire to see some action," Mr. Poovey told the Abilene paper. "Sometimes we catch people, and they admit they did it because they just didn't have anything better to do."
Arson has dogged Texas beyond the wildfires. Last year, two Texas men were sentenced to 14 consecutive life sentences for setting fire to 10 churches across east Texas. One of the men, Jason Bourque, blamed his attempts to stop smoking – and his use of a powerful smoking-cessation drug – for his actions.
Last week, a Texas state commission released a report about the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for burning down his Corsicana home with his three children inside in 1991. Death-penalty opponents say faulty forensic science led the state to execute in 2004 what they call an innocent man. The report released last week found no evidence of negligence or misconduct on the part of arson investigators in the case.