Electrocuted birds die, sparking US wildfires

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(Photo: Malachi Brooks/Unsplash)
Some wildfires may be the result of a gender reveal gone wrong or a failed attempt to clear camping debris, but many others are caused by something much more mundane. Research by an American engineering consulting firm found that many wildfires are caused by birds being electrocuted by power lines.

Wildfires have taken semi-permanent residence in the public consciousness thanks to their increasing materialization around the world. A group of researchers from EDM International noticed that while wildfires are often caused or exacerbated by the typical suspects – climate change, invasive weeds and human population growth in dry areas – the electrocuted birds have suspiciously bundled two infamous fires together. A wildfire that swept through central Chile in 2014 is believed to have been started by a bird; so was Idaho’s 2015 Soda Fire, which spanned 265,000 acres. The similarity made the team wonder how often birds on power lines start wildfires.

So Taylor Barnes, a biologist at EDM, began collecting data on wildfires in the contiguous United States. Some of this data was acquired using Google Alerts, which provided them with notifications when new results appearing involving “eagle”, “fire” or other keywords. (An interview with Science Magazine revealed Barnes and his team had to filter out results related to the classic Pontiac Firebird.) After filtering out reports with no evidence of causation, the researchers found that the birds started 44 wildfires between 2014 and 2018.

(Photo: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen/Unsplash)

These fires were mainly concentrated on a part of the West Coast that stretches from southern Oregon to northern Mexico, an area of ​​​​the United States prone to wildfires in general, thanks to its relatively arid climate and its vegetation. dried. This, it seems, is a major contributor to the unfortunate propensity of birds to become fire starters. 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 particularly likely to start fires. Not only do they tend to sit higher to prepare their next meal, but their long wingspans are more likely to hit multiple wires at once on takeoff.

Antoni Margalida, a conservation biologist at the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology, told Science Magazine that there are several ways to adjust infrastructure and avoid future bird-caused fires. Utility companies “in areas with wet winters and hot, dry summers” could install spikes to keep birds away and ensure all wires are insulated. They could also create structures around transformers and make them safer to sit on. The initial costs of such changes, Margalida said, would be offset by damage control measures typically required after a wildfire, such as legal settlements and reconstruction.

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