Wildfires have taken up semi-permanent residence in the public consciousness thanks to their increasing materialization around the world. A group of researchers at EDM International noticed that while wildfires are often caused or exacerbated by the typical suspects—climate change, invasive grasses, and human population growth in dry areas—electrocuted birds suspiciously grouped two infamous fires together. A wildfire that tore through central Chile in 2014 was believed to have been started by a bird; so was Idaho’s 2015 Soda Fire, which spread across 265,000 acres. The similarity caused the team to wonder just how often birds on power lines triggered wildfires.
So Taylor Barnes, a biologist at EDM, began gathering data on wildfires in the contiguous US. Some of this data was acquired using Google Alerts, which provided them with notifications when new results involving “eagle,” “fire,” or other keywords popped up. (An interview with Science Magazine reveals Barnes and his team had to filter out results related to the classic Pontiac Firebird.) After filtering out reports without proof of causation, the researchers found that birds started 44 wildfires between 2014 and 2018.
These fires were most concentrated in a stretch of the west coast that runs from southern Oregon to northern Mexico—a region of the US prone to wildfires in general, thanks to its relatively arid climate and dry vegetation. This, it seems, is a major contributor to birds’ unfortunate proclivity for becoming firestarters. Birds that unwittingly strike active power lines fall to the ground, where dried leaves and shrubs act as tinder. Hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey are especially likely to cause fires. Not only do they tend to sit higher up to scope out their next meal, but their long wingspans are more likely to touch multiple wires at once upon takeoff.
Antoni Margalida, a conservation biologist at the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology, told Science Magazine there are a few ways to adjust infrastructure and avoid future bird-induced fires. Utility companies “in regions characterized by wet winters and hot, dry summers” could install spikes to ward off birds and ensure all wires are insulated. They could also create structures that surround transformers and make them safer to sit on. The upfront costs of such changes, Margalida said, would be offset by damage-control measures typically required after a wildfire, such as legal settlements and rebuilding.