May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1996


A few shining moments in the annals of stupidity

The summer of 1996 is finally in the books, going down as one of the driest and, not coincidentally, most incendiary on record. For the busy wildfire investigators still sifting through the ashes, however, the dog days remain in full swing. Sure, many of the year's most devastating fires have been attributed to the standard lightning-hits-parched-ponderosa scenario--but not all. Herewith, a closer look at some of the season's more notorious blazes.

The Suspects The Damage The Ignition From the Case File
Two boys, ages 13 and 14, whose names have been withheld 3,804 acres in and around the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada, as well as the home of one of the boys' neighbors Making enemies of the ASPCA and Smokey Bear in one fell swoop, on June 23 the boys soaked a lizard in gasoline, set it ablaze, and then watched helplessly as it scurried into the nearby sagebrush, cutting a swath of flames that caused more than $1 million in damage. "Certainly they didn't go out there intending to burn down the forest," says Captain Rich Riolo, fire prevention officer for the Nevada Division of Forestry. "But there was clearly some sort of--how shall I put it?--profound mental lapse on their part."
28-year-old New Mexican Gregory Steele and 23-year-old German tourist Farid Touchi 16,744 acres in Bandelier National Monument and Santa Fe National Forest, including more than 300 notable archaeological sites Well intentioned, if perhaps a bit naive, Steele and Touchi certainly tried to extinguish their smoldering campfire last May. They poured water on it. They threw rocks on it. And then they went the extra mile: They urinated on it. Alas, at least one ember survived the onslaught, jumping the fire ring and igniting a bed of dry pine needles, setting off an inferno that took nine days to contain. "Forget urinating," says Tom Mott, a fire management officer with the U.S. Forest Service. "The only acceptable way to tell if a fire's out is to run a bare hand through the ashes. If your hand isn't burned, it's probably out."
A yet to be identified--
though presumably nearsighted-- target shooter
More than 9,500 acres in southern California's San Bernardino National Forest Squeezing off a magazine of illegal steel-case bullets on June 30, aiming for a rotten stump in knee-high dead grass, our would-be William Tell fired short into the brush, showering the area with sparks and setting the field ablaze. "There are lots of yahoos who head out with rifles and empty beer cans," says Tom Sensintaffar, center manager at San Bernardino National Forest. "Unfortunately, they're not the kind of people who tend to turn themselves in."
John Lovrovic, an unemployed 26-year-old college graduate About four acres in New Jersey's Pine Barrens On what investigators say was an all-out 20-day arson spree last June, Lovrovic allegedly sparked piles of twigs, pinecones, and magazines in an attempt to burn the entire million-acre Barrens. Foiled by quick response from firefighters and a spate of wet weather, Lovrovic's three-county campaign went for naught, taking less than a hundredth of a square mile in 40 separate blazes. "He covered a lot of ground," says Bill Edwards of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. "Luckily, though, none of the fires amounted to much--they only took about 15 or 20 minutes to put out. But If he'd been a little better at it, this guy would have killed us all."
A very unfortunate, very flammable red-tailed hawk 9,164 acres in Idaho's Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area On its way to a comfy perch atop a utility pole on June 29, the star-crossed hawk spun off-course and headed wing-first into a pair of 69,000-volt power lines. The raptor, now little more than a fireball, plummeted into the dry cheat grass below. "This happens more than you might think," says Dennis Rudd, a fire operations specialist for the BLM's Lower Snake River District. "He was the second bird on this line--a golden eagle got it back in '83. And once a bird grounds itself on a high-voltage line, it's toast...literally. If the ground below is parched, well, it's not a pretty picture."

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