It’s tempting to blame the US west’s wildfires on arson. The truth is more complex
Rumors have pointed to antifa, rightwingers, even space lasers as culprits but fire-setting accounts for a minority of blazes
As California endures another grueling wildfire season, the charges against two alleged arsonists this summer attracted widespread attention.
Alexandra Souverneva, a former doctoral student and yoga teacher, made tabloid headlines in September when she told investigators suspecting her of causing the Fawn fire that she had tried to start a fire to boil water she thought contained bear urine. The arrest of Gary Maynard, a former criminal justice professor who allegedly went on a fire-setting spree near Lassen national forest in an effort to trap crews fighting the Dixie fire the month before, prompted warnings about the “potent threat” of an arsonist’s match as the state grapples with megafires.
But while the cases made for grabby headlines, arson isn’t a driving factor in the American west’s wildfire emergency. “Arson cases get a hugely disproportionate amount of coverage compared to any other cause of fire,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “That’s because it’s an interesting story, not because it’s a major part of the problem.”
Most wildfires are started by humans – downed powerlines, an unattended campfire, a flat tire that sends sparks into dry brush. But arson – the criminal act of deliberately setting fire to property – isn’t all that common. In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, arson was found to be the cause of about 9% of the 3,086 fires Cal Fire responded to, and responsible for 2% of all acres burned that year. The state’s firefighting agency has said arrests have increased in the last two years from 70 in 2019 to 120 in 2020, but that the number of arson incidents hasn’t significantly changed.
“We’ve had some more success with the number of arrests we’ve made, but we haven’t seen a significant jump in the number of arson fires,” said Gianni Muschetto, the staff chief of Cal Fire’s law enforcement division. “The last few years have still been in that statistical norm of 6% to 10%.”
The actual issues driving the state’s wildfires are complex and can’t be boiled down to one single factor, Swain said. There are forest management policies that have left the land overgrown with fuel, the climate crisis, which is creating conditions ripe for more extreme fire behavior, and urban expansion – the movement of people into wild areas prone to burn.
Still, news about the few arrests travel far and wide. “It doesn’t matter what the data or statistics actually show,” Swain said. “It provides a villain. It puts a face to some disaster. I think for some people it’s easier if there’s a human villain, a specific person, whereas in reality that’s almost never the case. It’s a societal 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 in fact driving increasingly destructive blazes. “So it’s not climate-related after all?” one Butte county resident asked in response to a post about the arrests. “There is your climate change Governor quit selling lies and start dealing with the real problem,” another said. Some users accused arsonists of attempting to destroy parts of the state they don’t like, or speculated that arsonists are being paid to start fires.
Misinformation about the origins of fires is often spread by conspiracy theorists capitalizing on the complex nature of the crisis. As fires raged in the Pacific north-west last year, social media platforms saw a wave of disinformation about their origin, with baseless rumors spreading 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 towns overcome with fear over rumors of antifa arson attacks.
After the 2018 Camp fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, false rumors spread online that the blaze was sparked by a laser in space to make way for California’s high-speed rail project, a narrative that Marjorie Taylor Greene, now a House representative from Georgia, helped to spread.
Cal Fire tries to release information about the causes of 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 large fire we will see a lot of speculation about the cause and people will throw out a lot of things. We’ve heard anything from it was a meteor shower to … a group of arsonists,” Muschetto said. “Taking the time to complete a thorough and accurate investigation will help squash that misinformation.”
The Camp fire was actually sparked by the utility company Pacific Gas & Electric. Faulty PG&E equipment has been determined as the cause of hundreds of fires in recent years and the company has pleaded guilty to dozens of counts of manslaughter for its role in the Camp fire. It pledged to harden its infrastructure, better manage vegetation around power lines and closely monitor for fires, but is yet again facing manslaughter charges for a 2020 fire, the Zogg fire, that killed four.
PG&E declined to answer specific questions about its efforts to reduce wildfire ignitions but pointed to its use of new technology to mitigate risks, a plan to place 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 equipment started the Zogg fire, PG&E said it had not committed a crime.
“We’re putting everything we’ve got into preventing wildfires and reducing the risk,” the CEO, Patti Poppe, said in a statement. “Though it may feel satisfying for the company of PG&E to be charged with a crime, what I know is the company of PG&E is people, 40,000 people who get up every day to make it safe and to end catastrophic wildfire and tragedies like this. Let’s be clear, my co-workers are not criminals.”
Unlike in arson cases, no individual from PG&E has faced charges for the utility’s role in causing deadly fires, though the Shasta county district attorney has indicated that could change.
“People are very upset and very angry about the broader wildfire situation and I think people are more prone to pointing fingers,” Swain said. “Whether you’re talking about climate change or forest management … it’s not one person’s fault. You can’t point at it like you can a mugshot in the newspaper.”