As California endures another grueling wildfire season, the charges against two suspected arsonists this summer drew a lot of attention.
Alexandra Souverneva, a former PhD student and yoga teacher, made headlines in September when she told investigators they suspected she had caused the Fawn fire that she had tried to start a fire to boiled water thought it contained bear urine. The arrest of Gary Maynard, a former criminal justice professor who allegedly embarked on a fire spree near Lassen National Forest in an effort to catch crews fighting the Dixie fire the previous month, prompted warnings about the “powerful threat“Of the combat of an arsonist while the state fights with megafires.
But while the cases made eye-catching headlines, arson is not a determining factor in the wildfire emergency in the American West. “Arson incidents receive vastly disproportionate coverage compared to any other cause of fire,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the UCLA Institute for Environment and Sustainability. “That’s because it’s an interesting story, not because it’s a big part of the problem.”
Most wildfires are started by humans: downed power lines, an unattended campfire, a flat tire sending sparks into dry brush. But arson, the criminal act of deliberately setting property on fire, is not that common. In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, arson was found to be the cause of approximately 9% of the 3,086 fires to which Cal Fire responded, and responsible for 2% of all acres burned that anus. The state firefighting agency has said that arrests have risen in the past two years from 70 in 2019 to 120 in 2020, but that the number of incidents provoked has not changed significantly.
“We have been more successful with the number of arrests we have made, but we have not seen a significant increase in the number of arson,” said Gianni Muschetto, chief of staff for Cal Fire’s law enforcement division. “The last few years have still been at that statistical standard of 6% to 10%.”
The real issues driving the state’s wildfires are complex and cannot be boiled down to just one factor, Swain said. There are forest management policies that have left the land covered in fuel, the climate crisis, which is creating conditions conducive to more extreme fire behavior, and urban sprawl – the movement of people into wild areas prone to burning.
Still, news about the few arrests travels everywhere. “It doesn’t matter what the data or the statistics actually show,” Swain said. “Provide a villain. It puts you in the face of some disaster. I think for some people it is easier if there is a human villain, a specific person, whereas in reality that is almost never the case. It is a social problem. “
In online community groups in fire-prone northern California, some residents this summer pointed to the cases as proof that the climate crisis is not causing increasingly destructive fires. “So it’s not related to the weather after all?” a Butte County resident asked in response to a post about the arrests. “There is your climate change governor, stop selling lies and start dealing with the real problem,” said another. Some users accused arsonists of trying to destroy parts of the state they don’t like, or speculated that arsonists are being paid to start fires.
Misinformation about the The origins of the fires are often spread by conspiracy theorists who take advantage of the complex nature of the crisis. As fires raged in the Pacific Northwest last year, social media platforms saw a wave of misinformation about their origin, with unsubstantiated rumors that the fires were lit by antifa or by far-right groups. Those rumors complicated the emergency response, inspiring vigilante acts and armed patrols in villages overwhelmed by fear over rumors of arson attacks.
After the 2018 Camp fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed the city of Paradise, false rumors spread online that the fire was started by a laser in space to make way for the California high-speed rail project, a narrative that Marjorie Taylor Greene, now Georgia’s House representative, helped spread the word.
Cal Fire tries to release information about the causes of the fires as quickly as possible, but those investigations can take months or even years, Muschetto said, and during that period misinformation can spread.
“With any big fire we will see a lot of speculation about the cause and people will throw a lot of things. We heard something that it was a meteor shower for… a group of arsonists, ”Muschetto said. “Taking the time to complete a complete and accurate investigation will help eliminate that misinformation.”
The Camp fire was actually started by the Pacific Gas & Electric utility company. Defective PG&E equipment has been determined to be the cause of hundreds of fires in recent years and the company has pleaded guilty to dozens of counts of involuntary manslaughter for its role in the Camp fire. He vowed to strengthen his infrastructure, better manage vegetation around power lines, and closely monitor fires, but once again faces charges of involuntary manslaughter for a Fire 2020, the Zogg fire, which killed four.
PG&E declined to answer specific questions about its efforts to reduce wildfire ignition, but pointed to the use of new technology to mitigate risks, a plan to lay 100,000 miles of power lines underground, and the appointment of a new CEO, among other efforts. While the company accepts Cal Fire’s findings that its team started the Zogg fire, PG&E said it had not committed a crime.
“We are doing everything we have to prevent wildfires and reduce risk,” Executive Director Patti Poppe said, said in a sentence. “While it may be satisfying for the PG&E company to be charged with a crime, what I know is that the PG&E company is people, 40,000 people who get up every day to make it safe and put an end to catastrophic wildfires and tragedies like is. Let’s be clear, my co-workers are not criminals. ”
Unlike arson cases, no individual from PG&E has faced charges for the utility’s role in causing deadly fires, although the Shasta County district attorney has indicated that could change.
“People are very upset and angry about the broader wildfire situation and I think people are more likely to point fingers,” Swain said. “Whether it’s climate change or forest management… it’s not one person’s fault. You can’t point out how you do with a mugshot in the newspaper. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism