Two men get prison for accidentally starting wildfire. Too harsh?

Two California men were sentenced – one to five months in prison and the other to six – for accidentally starting a wildfire. Prison time for starting fires is not unprecedented.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Firefighters from the Farmington, N.M., Fire Department monitor the Eiler fire on Monday near Burney, Calif.

Lightning strikes are being blamed for starting dozens of brush fires across tinder-dry California in recent weeks, but federal prison terms for two men convicted of accidentally igniting a major California fire earlier this year spotlight the larger problem of how to stop human-induced fires.

Annually, nearly 90 percent of wildland fires are triggered by human behavior, according to the National Park Service. The problem has taken on new urgency during a record drought and fire season.

Prosecutors say the fire got away from the two men as they smoked pot and watched videos on a laptop. The resulting fire some 30 miles north of Los Angeles burned 1,900 acres and six homes and "could have been so much worse," according to a prosecutors’ filing during the sentencing phase.

On Monday, one of the two men was sentenced to six months in prison, the other to five.

Prison terms for people who start wildfires – even inadvertently – are not unprecedented. A California man was sentenced to two years in prison for starting the largest fire in the state in 2004, which destroyed 86 homes. He mowed his lawn despite warnings against doing so because of dry conditions. The mower blade struck a stone, and the sparks ignited the lawn.

The Shasta County prosecutor in the case said of the man: "His attitude showed that he was the type of person who was not going to learn from his mistakes. A prison sentence was appropriate."

Some of these actions lack basic common sense, says Chuck Sheley, editor of the National Smokejumper Association's Smokejumper magazine. “So you have to have some consequences,” he says. “Seriously, how many times do you have to be told you don’t mow a lawn or clear brush [with hot equipment] during high fire season?” 

Getting public eduction to take hold is the key. “Without a doubt, wildfire education and prevention efforts is the best tool for all of us,” says Mike Ferris, emergency management specialist at the National Incident Management Organization for the US Forest Service.

Firefighters on the front lines note that homeowners, particularly in the interface between wildlands and urban areas, are eager to protect their property. “We’ve been talking to residents, and they want to know how to keep the fire from spreading,” says Ron Steffens of the International Association of Wildland Fire, who is in central Washington to help predict where the firefighting resources will be needed next.

That means understanding how fire behaves and how to stay a step ahead. “Take a look at dry grass. Fire looks at that as a highway.” Fire needs fuel. 

What happens when people are looking for a spot to dump old charcoal? They need to think about the bigger picture, he says. “We have to learn to think like fire.”

Mr. Steffens notes that a comparatively small fire he is currently working to stop was caused by understandable negligence. A flat tire led to an axle being dragged along the road, causing sparks. The next thing the driver knew, the sparks had started a fire.

"Now, if I’m thinking like fire, I would say to myself, 'Metal on concrete can cause sparks so I should get my truck serviced to prevent that from happening,' " he says.

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