In June 2002, amid a campfire ban and red flag warning from the National Weather Service, Terry Barton burned a letter.
The exact contents of the letter were disputed — Barton, a U.S. Forest Service employee, says it was from her estranged husband, while her teenage daughter testified that a psychology teacher told the woman to write down her feelings, then burn the letter, according to a New York Times report.
What’s not disputed is the destruction that ensued, perhaps on a scale never seen in Colorado. The Hayman Fire would burn over 138,000 acres, destroying 600 structures including 133 homes, triggering the evacuations of 5,300 residents and resulting in the deaths of six people, five of them firefighters who died in a car accident. It cost $39 million to suppress the fire, which destroyed over $40 million in private property.
“It looks as if all of Colorado is burning today,” then-Gov. Bill Owens said at the time.
It was the largest fire in Colorado history, until it was dethroned in 2020 by the Pine Gulch fire, then the Cameron Peak fire weeks later.
On Monday, a scenario eerily reminiscent of Barton’s blunder played out in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah County, when Cory Allan Martin allegedly tried to burn a spider with a lighter, according to court documents.
The surrounding brush ignited, and the flames spread rapidly — by late afternoon, the Springville fire was burning over 60 acres from the base to the top of the mountain, according to fire officials. As of Tuesday afternoon it was 90% contained, thanks in part to heavy rains.
Police later found a jar of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, and Martin was arrested and booked for investigation of reckless burning, a class A misdemeanor, and possession of controlled substance and paraphernalia, both class B misdemeanors.
“For the most part, leave them alone,” Spencer Cannon with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office said of spiders. “But if it’s in a position where it’s over your kid’s bed, or over the kitchen table or something like that and you have to kill it ... find a way that you can do it that’s reasonable.”
For Cannon and other first responders who have worked countless wildfires over their careers, you can add Monday’s blow up to the long list of bizarre, human-caused blazes.
Recklessly launched fireworks are sometimes the culprit — other times it’s people running their lawnmowers over rocks, causing a spark. Explosive-laden gender reveal parties have been known to ignite wildfires, as has target shooting, especially using explosive ammunition or targets, or shooting things like tires, which have a steel wire that can spark. There have been other instances where people intentionally shoot power lines, according to the Utah Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands.
Even horses and horseshoes have been known to spark and ignite brush.
“We probably get one or two of those every year, or at least every couple of years,” said Jason Curry, deputy director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
Nearly 85% of wildfires in the U.S. are caused by humans, according to the National Park Service — often it’s abandoned campfires or equipment malfunctions. But some are more puzzling, and in addition to burning insects and letters from an ex, here are some other head-scratching, human-caused wildfires.
Gender reveal parties gone horribly wrong: Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez were indicted for 30 crimes including involuntary manslaughter after using a pyrotechnic device for a gender reveal party in 2020, according to the Guardian.
The blaze burned for 23 days in California’s San Bernardino County, destroying five homes and killing Charlie Morton, a firefighter.
It wasn’t the first time a gender reveal party, a relatively new trend where expecting parents announce the gender of their child through a sometimes extravagant stunt, started a fire.
In 2017, a Border Patrol agent shot a target filled with colored powder — and Tannerite, an explosive substance — during a party, according to NBC News. The fire would go on to burn over 45,000 acres in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest, causing $8 million in damages and requiring nearly 800 firefighters.
The shooting range goes up in flames: In 2020, the 3,450-acre Range Fire in Utah County was started by a police officer at the Orem Police Gun Range.
The fire, which burned nearly 3,500 acres and filled the Salt Lake Valley with smoke, was one of 51 Utah blazes in 2020 that were a result of target shooting, according to Utah Fire Info.
There are typically three ways target shooting can trigger a blaze, according to Utah Fire Info. One of the more common instances is when a bullet strikes a rock and shatters — those fragments can then cause a spark.
Incendiary rounds and explosive targets can also cause fires, though both are often banned on public land.
That doesn’t stop all gun enthusiasts, though, and in 2018 the Badger Point fire in Idaho burned over 137 acres after shooters illegally used exploding targets.
And sometimes the intent is downright malicious. In 2008 a fire was started in Hoodsport, Washington, after a man shot at power lines — and in 2020, multiple fires were sparked in Jackson, Mississippi, after someone shot a utility line, then three days later shot another line.
Sparks from horseshoes: Like Curry from the Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands said, fires sparked from horseshoes are rare, but not impossible.
Maybe the most high-profile example is a 100-acre blaze triggered near Camp Far West, California in 2002 after a horseshoe sparked on a rock, igniting the surrounding brush.
Just two years earlier, the American Fire in Auburn, California, was also caused by sparks from horseshoes.
“People who are riding horses need to look behind them,” Tina Rose, a firefighter, told Gold Country Media at the time.