Some variant of the line, “Most wildfires are caused by people,” is often seen or heard in Nevada news reports during fire season.
Such reports were already appearing in local news this year, even before the fire season got underway. Sometimes reports will say “caused by carelessness” or “caused by human activity.”
However it’s phrased, it’s wrong. In the West, most wildfires are caused by nature.
While the state of Nevada produces a report for the National Fire Incident Reporting System, the published figures are of little help, since a whopping 42 percent of Nevada’s fire departments failed to provide figures for the report.
However, Nevada State Forester Pete Anderson says in Nevada it’s not even a close call.
“Every state is different, but generally speaking, Western states do experience higher wildfire ignitions from lightning. Certainly here in Nevada, we experience many more lightning-caused fires—tens of thousands—than [from] any other cause.”
Some public agencies foster the confusion. The U.S. Forest Service refuses to distinguish between regions, disingenuously telling the public that most fires are caused by people. This is technically correct because most fires in the East are caused by humans, and that total has pushed the national toll of human-caused fires into a slight lead nationally. But it is misleading, as in 2002, when a Forest Service spokesperson told a reporter for the Contra Costa Times—and the reporter repeated to his readers—that “most wildfires are caused by humans, whether accidentally or on purpose.” Since the subject of the story was California fires, the reporter ended up inadvertently misleading readers.
The confusion is sometimes caused by public agencies but just as often by reporters failing to do homework. UNR journalism professor Jake Highton says of an increasing number of reporters, “They don’t know the history, they don’t know the problem, and they don’t do their homework.”
The practice of “civic journalism” (in which journalists get involved in solving community problems) also can foster misinformation, leading to news being used to aid an end result or to put a spin on stories favored by officialdom. In the case of wildfires, officials often would rather have the public focusing on prevention than on the actual causes of fires. Thus, many news stories end up using sentences very similar to this one on the Forest Service Web site: “Since people cause most wildfires, we all have a part in preventing them.”
Sometimes even when a reporter does do the homework, boosterism can blind him or her to reliable information. Portland’s Oregonian reported in 2003, “Lightning starts about 15 percent of wildfires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. People start the rest.” But in fact, the NIFC says no such thing. Its Web page reports, “While most wildfires are caused by dry lightning in Western states, an alarming number of fires were ignited by careless human acts this year.”
Some discerning reporters can see past the official line. The Christian Science Monitor, in a story on Western wildfires for which the Forest Service provided information, still reported, “Meanwhile, sophisticated detectors are recording the thousands of lightning strikes that cause most wildfires. …”
Doing the homework on wildfires is ever easier because of the Internet, but reporters have to be able to sort out what is accurate and what is not. The 2003 Oregonian report shot around the Web and can still be found on at least 15 Web pages, demonstrating the way the Internet can cause misinformation to proliferate.
Other, more reliable sources exist. The federal Joint Fire Science Program Web page says, “Lightning causes most wildfires in the Western United States and is a major cause of fire elsewhere.”
PBS’s Nova: “Lightning causes most wildfires on the continent, except in Mexico (and in Central America), where 97 percent of fires are intentionally set for agricultural purposes. North America’s wide range of climate types allows wildfire to burn somewhere on the continent during almost every month of the year. This is particularly true in the Southeastern U.S., where prescribed fires for land management account for 75 percent of all controlled burns in the country and are ignited year-round.”