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And a slow lip of fire moves across the prairie with precision

September 4, 2009
Taken by Karol Franks

Taken by Karol Franks

First of all, here is a soundtrack for this post, and the coming fall. It’s Jason Lytle, formerly of Grandaddy, one of my all-time dark-horse favorite bands.  Their 2000 album The Sophtware Slump is a cracked classic.  Lytle just released a solo album, and in this show plays songs from that album as well as his earlier Grandaddy stuff.

Second, the fire outside of Los Angeles.  Click here for some incredible pictures of the fire. My favorites are nos. 6 and 33.  No. 33 looks almost like some sort of protean beast, or a Chuck Close painting of a fire, while no. 6—there’s just something mystical going on there, with the spooked horses’ eyes, and the outstretched arms and hands of the people who are trying to calm or corral them, I can’t tell which.  Two firefighters have been killed in the blaze—which is called the Station Fire—and 100 buildings destroyed.  Is it insensitive to marvel at photos of the culprit?

But so the other day I was listening to NPR, as I do in the mornings when I’m getting ready for work—I like to start the day off with a nice blast of godless socialism—and I heard a news item about fire investigators having discovered that the fire was started “by people.”  Then, today, I read that the investigators have determined that the fire was started by arson (contrary to what I’m about to post from Slate says below)—and don’t miss the hilarious picture of the Governator contained within the link just above.

So what I’m wondering is: How do you possibly determine how a fire started, much less whether or not it was started by people and whether it was accidental or arson?  Isn’t, like, the evidence all burned up?  I mean, isn’t that what people do to cover up crimes?  Burn everything?

As usual, Slate has the answer, in a version of their ongoing “What’s the deal with X?” series:

Investigators have concluded that the Station fire was caused by humans, though it’s not yet known whether it was accidental or arson. How do you examine a wildfire for signs of arson?

First, figure out where it started. The place where firefighters first engaged with the blaze is a good place to begin, as are spots where eyewitnesses say they first saw flames or charred ground. Once there, investigators can lay down something like an archaeological grid and start sifting through the debris. This evidence might include the “puddle” burn patterns caused by an accelerant—or the remains of a cigarette. Investigators also look for footprints or tire marks, and they sometimes use magnets to find stray bits of metal that might have been part of a time-delayed incendiary device. (Read more on how investigators look for signs of arson.)

Interesting stuff, right?  Good luck to the firefighters out there, and everyone in Los Angeles.

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