Terror strikes at the heart of anyone who faces a wall of fast-moving fire. Last week’s Northern California Butte and Valley fires remind everyone of the fear and destruction that follows any raging blaze, regardless of how it starts.
The cause for these fires kindled around Sept. 11 appears to be a bad combination of accidental factors and not arson. But the devastating inferno on this terrorism anniversary raises quiet, yet uncomfortable questions regarding past and future criminal intent – and perhaps international terrorist activity – in wildfires.
While arson was not involved in the Butte and Valley fires, it remains the overall stated goal of radical extremists and organizations like al-Qaida to burn down our house.
The U.S. government actively does more than we know to prevent random acts of terrorism, but a lone-wolf arsonist is a real threat and as tough to stop as a rampaging fire is hard to tamp.
Making matters worse, California and the Western states have become highly flammable tinderboxes as a result of drought and climate change, making them extremely vulnerable to bad actors with worse intentions.
The threat of international arson terrorists is not idle. Al-Qaida is well aware of the virtually unprotected nature of the West’s extensive forests and grasslands and has specifically targeted them for attack.
Around the same time as the unsolved, mysteriously suspect and highly destructive Waldo Canyon, Colo., fires in the summer of 2012, the Department of Homeland Security published an unclassified report titled “Terrorist Interest in Using Fire as a Weapon.” The findings are, appropriately, terrifying:
“International terrorist groups and violent extremists have long shown interest in using fire as a weapon due to the low cost and limited technical expertise required, the potential for causing large-scale damage, and the low risk of apprehension. Recent encouragement of use of this tactic by terrorist groups and violent extremists in propaganda materials and extremist Web forums is directed at Western audiences and supports Homeland attacks.”
Montana is al-Qaida’s favored forested area due to its open wilderness and low population density. A few years back, Inspire, an online jihadi magazine, encouraged al-Qaida sympathizers in the West to deploy DIY “ember bombs.”
Montana’s valleys may be enticing to global arsonists, but California is particularly susceptible with its statewide extra-dry sylvan stands and the Southland’s flame-fanning Santa Ana winds. An uncontrollable firestorm is only a spark away.
Wildfires are nearly all started by humans, but the indiscriminate burning that ensues does not discern if the culprit is a tossed cigarette, exploded incendiary device or fateful lightning strike. Unsurprisingly, fire is one of the world’s oldest and most effective weapons of war. Laying waste to enemies by burning down their habitats is as old as recorded history.
Fire is sometimes used strategically, as punitive destruction, to weaken an enemy and destroy its resources and will to fight – as when the Nazis firebombed England during the Blitz in World War II or when the allies in turn firebombed Nazi Germany’s Dresden.
In wartime, fire is also used tactically with scorched-earth policies employed operationally to make sure nothing of military or economic value is left behind to help adversaries battle. As Iraqi forces retreated from Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1991, they set oil wells ablaze in their wake in classic scorched-earth fashion.
Targeted and controlled thermal warfare began with Greek Fire, a Byzantine military development aiming water-resistant flames at an adversary’s flotilla. “Greek Fire was first used to break the Muslim navy’s seven-year siege of Constantinople in AD 673,” writes military historian Adrienne Mayor.
Burning down the entire U.S. West Coast was the goal of the Japanese during World War II with “Fire Balloons,” considered the first intercontinental bombs. These incendiary devices were hydrogen-filled balloons released in Japan intended to burn down the forests and cities on America’s Pacific Coast. Thankfully, only one of those devices is known to have caused fatalities.
Everyone hopes the current California blazes were started innocently. The next Western firestorm is just around the corner, however, and its ignition may be intentional and criminal. The Department of Homeland Security is absolutely right about this: “If you see something, say something!”
In a perfect world, fear itself should be the only thing we fear. Unfortunately, fire should be added to that short list.
Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.