California Is Trying to Prevent Fires. No One Expected a Smoking Garbage Truck.

The New York Times 5 days ago

A utility shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers. Municipalities prohibited people from burning debris. Fire departments called in reinforcements amid dry and windy weather.

But the fire precautions of officials and residents across California this week did nothing to prevent a deadly fire in Riverside County sparked by an unlikely culprit: a garbage truck.

It all began, officials said, when the driver of the truck dumped a burning load of trash on the side of a road in Calimesa, Calif., on Thursday. The fire quickly spread to a nearby field and shot black plumes into the sky. It ultimately became the Sandalwood Fire, killing two people and destroying 74 structures, including many mobile homes, as it grew to the size of Central Park.

That fire was one of several blazes that firefighters were battling in Southern California on Saturday. In Los Angeles, hundreds of firefighters, aided by planes and helicopters, worked overnight to contain about a fifth of the Saddleridge Fire, which was still about 7,500 acres as of Saturday afternoon.

As residents debate the merits of hugely disruptive but perhaps increasingly necessary power shutdowns, the question of how to stop vast swaths of California from going up in flames every year will likely only get harder.

Last year, humans were to blame for more than 96 percent of California’s 8,054 wildfires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, whether the first embers came from abandoned firepits, discarded cigarettes or equipment malfunctions.

The deadliest of these, the Camp Fire in and around Paradise, was blamed on electrical equipment from Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which many have railed against over what they said was a bungled shut-off plan this week.

But other major fires whose names have entered the record books were tied directly to actions by people, including the Klamathon Fire (reckless burning of debris), the Carr Fire (a wheel rim scraping pavement), and the Mendocino Complex Fire (hammering a metal stake into a wasp’s nest).

Despite all of the warnings and precautions, human error, it seems, always finds a way.

“Some of these things are really quite unbelievable when you hear about them,” said William C. Stewart, a forestry specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. “But they just occur with a certain probability. They just do.”

Mr. Stewart has seen several fires that began when a lawn mower scraped against a rock on a hot day, sending sparks into the dry grass. The Sandalwood fire was the first time he had heard of a garbage truck’s load igniting a wildfire, but not much surprises him anymore.

“There’s just an endless series of things that people do to create sparks and fires,” Mr. Stewart said. “This time of year, when everything is bone dry, it really is just like kindling.”

Shawn Melvin was idling at an intersection in Calimesa with his son on Thursday when the smoking trash truck sped by. Mr. Melvin, 36, a diesel mechanic, has lived in the area his whole life and had never seen anything like that, so he followed the truck and had his 8-year-old son record the rising smoke.

Not long after, the truck pulled to the side of the road. Mr. Melvin realized the driver was about to release the smoldering trash right next to a large, dry patch of land, and pleaded with him to drive somewhere safer.

“Go anywhere else but here,” Mr. Melvin recalled telling the driver, “because you will catch this field on fire.”

Mr. Melvin said his “Dad mode kicked in,” and he drove off to get his son out of harm’s way and to pick up his daughter from a nearby middle school. By the time school let out, about 15 minutes later, Mr. Melvin could see and smell the smoke from the school’s parking lot.

“Hurry up and get out of class,” Mr. Melvin texted his daughter. “Come straight to the car.”

Mr. Melvin said he was angry that the truck driver had not listened to him, especially given that two people had died in the fire.

“Someone made a foolish mistake that devastated a little community,” he said. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said both victims had been found at the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park and identified one as an 89-year-old resident.

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, on Saturday declined to comment on whether the garbage truck seen in Mr. Melvin’s video was the culprit.

But the department did confirm that the fire was caused by a trash truck dumping a load of burning garbage near vegetation, and said the fire had started about 1,000 feet from where Mr. Melvin saw the truck pull over. The company, CR&R Environmental Services, which collects trash in Calimesa and whose logo appears on the truck, did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday.

The Cal Fire spokeswoman, Cathey Mattingly, said law enforcement officers were investigating the Sandalwood Fire. Mr. Melvin said they and officials from the Riverside County Fire Department had interviewed him and asked him for any photographs and videos he had of the fire and the garbage truck.

Garbage trucks’ loads can catch fire from batteries, paint, chemicals, cigarettes and other flammable items. Drivers are often told by their companies to dump “hot loads” in places like parking lots rather than let their trucks burn up.

Tags: US

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