Terrorist Forest Fires?

I caught a lot of flak a few months back when I speculated about why terrorists don’t carry out a wide array of simple but devastating terrorist plots. (For fear of another flood of hate mail, I don’t dare link to those earlier posts, but if you are interested you can easily find them.)

I’m pretty sure that forest fires would be a uniquely ineffective form of terrorism, but apparently setting fires was one of the scenarios that al Qaeda terrorists had considered.

From a terrorist’s perspective, there are some good points to the forest fire plot: it is incredibly easy, it only takes a few terrorists, it costs almost no money to carry out, and it imposes some non-trivial costs on the United States to fight the fires. On the other hand, it completely misses the main points of terrorism: to scare large numbers of people, and to disrupt everyday life. Almost nobody lives in areas likely to be affected by these fires. They would be an annoyance, but they likely wouldn’t evoke much terror.

(Hat tip: Pete Adams.)


Everyone is talking about forest fires, but do they necessarily have to be forest fires? I live on the north side of Chicago where most of the buildings a foot apart and for the most part made of wood. I'm curious of how many fires spread across the city the fire department would be able to deal with before things started getting out of control. I did a quick search and found a web site that claimed there are 98 engine companies in Chicago's 228 square miles. I don't really know how long it is to put out a fire that in started with a couple gallons of gas or how easy it is to start one, but it seems feasible for 10 guys to start a problem over the course of a night, especially if after starting 98 on the north side they started 98 on the south side. Anyone know much a about firefighting?


Maybe instead of forest fires they should have considered burning themselves alive ala Thich Quang Duc.


Attacking the economy by forcing the government to spend money and resources on things like that would be an effective idea.

Alternately, it would be an effective diversion to a main attack focused elsewhere.

Luke O

You mentioned a load of plots. The fact that one of them happened to be considered does in no way make you "predictive". You are starting to look less scientific and more a fool of randomness by the day.

Karen Carr

Even if Al Qaeda claimed to have set the San Diego fires, why would anyone believe them?

I don't think terrorists are aiming at anything in this country, actually. If you wanted to cause widespread fear cheaply, how about blowing up elementary schools? Nothing is stopping anyone from doing that, and yet it doesn't happen. Al Qaeda's not interested in what we think. They need to score points with their own people - Arabs in West Asia. They can do that by blowing up big things here that get on the news over there, but nobody in Saudi Arabia is going to care about a big fire here, or even an elementary school.

In any case, we seem to be entirely capable of scaring ourselves by making stuff up.


The damages I see are multiple.
1. Mega-costs
2. Fear of death in fires
3. Respiratory illness that may lead to acute and chronic lung disease.
4. Scares large groups of people
5. Interrupts everyday life- I live 2 hours north of LA and didn't go outside all day Saturday since I was coughing outside and had irritation in eyes whenever I was outside.

So it makes us as a whole poorer and sicker.

For terrorists, this technique is cheap, relatively easy to do anonymously, brings up a possible reality of having our homes burned down (like people who live in war zones, ....

No group is claiming responsibility which may go against the theory. Or have they?

Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza

are you kiddin'? look at the maps

Jaime Villacorte

I have to disagree with your comment that "Almost nobody lives in areas likely to be affected by these fires." According to the LA Times web page this morning, almost 900,000 people have evacuated their homes in Southern California due to the various wildfires.


like the fires in California?


The current fires in southern California are certainly scaring a large number of people and disrupting everyday life, and they easily could have been started by a coordinated group of terrorists setting fires simultaneously in multiple locations.

Given how many people nationwide now live in suburbs where there is lots of combustible material and open space, a plan to overwhelm fire departments by simultaneously starting multiple fires would almost certainly cause huge amounts of damage and cause widespread panic.


"To scare large numbers of people, and to disrupt everyday life".

I'd say that's a fair description of what the current fires are doing to my city.

San Diego is the 8th largest city in the US. In the current fire, hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated. The air downtown is filled with ash, many businesses are closed, and the city streets are unusually quiet. Many people live in fire-ravaged areas.

Ferdinand E. Banks

A small Japanese plane, launched from a submarine, dropped a bomb or two on a forest in (I believe) Oregon during WW2. This exercise was a distinuished waste of time.

But there was a very interesting aspect to this business. A black parachute-infantry battalion that was desperately needed on the German border was kept on the Pacific Coast to fight fires. Its commanding officer was in the my regiment in Japan, and he explained to me that this highly trained combat unit was given this assignment to keep it from demonstrating its abilities in Europe or the Pacific. Sounds looney-tune, doesn't it, but that's the way things were in those days.


Strange timing for this post, since about half a million people are currently "inconvenienced" by a forest fire in California...

I think what you meant to say is that it would be an ineffective plot because:

1) Establishing the conditions for an "terrifying" forest fire is extremely non-trivial. Large amounts of brush and trees need to become sufficiently dry and ready to ignite.

2) Once those conditions are satisfied, the fire is more than likely going to start itself due to some natural cause, anyway. As has been the case ever since forests started growing on this planet.


The problem with forest fires as a terrorist tool is they do not look spectacular on TV which is the main tool they are interested in.

Every summer we are used to watching fires on TV- something would have to be dramatcially different in scale or scope to really inspire fear.


Nice way to make your point. Reverse psychology lives!


Setting forest fires would be the perfect attack for homegrown terrorists who would have no physical affiliation with al-Qaeda (never went to training camps ect) but generally just sympathizers looking to contribute - which soon could be a bigger threat here than foreign terrorists coming to America. Granted it wouldn't have the "9/11" appeal of a massive media marketed terrorist attack, but theres a growing trend that organizations have stopped making claims of responsibility for attacks. Mostly because in terms of cost/benefits, the benefits of attacks (more money, recruits, their cause) are being enjoyed weather or not the group officially claims responsibility. The costs are much lower - less retribution attacks, law enforcement don't know who to target, ect.

Setting many fires close to large populations under good weather conditions certainly causes massive problems, it requires probably just a lighter and some gasoline, requires very little hardcore devotion and sacrifice on the part of the terrorist (compared to a suicide bomber), no training or financial resources from a centralized organization (the 9/11 hijackers needed hundreds of thousands of dollars for flight training and living expenses), and a very small chance of being caught. More importantly perhaps is that every local and state law enforcement agency in Southern California has its head turned away right now.

Or they could be totally natural and/or the work of an overeager Boy Scout. Who knows.



let's not overlook the irony here- probably the most gruesome terrorist acts were the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo- and these were justified by claiming that for cultural reasons (ala the "axis of evil" reasoning), all axis civilians are potential soldiers (ala al-qaida reasoning)- there's probably a little bit of pyro in all belligerant types


D'oh! Your reverse psychology got me, and I was manipulated into posting support for your position-- see the fifth comment, above.

Normally, I'd not have fallen into your academic trap, good sir. I'm distracted by the ash in the air, the probability of my evacuation, and the fires on the news.

M. David Eaman

Shortly after 9/11, some academic (who's name I don't recall, sorry) made a comment that 9/11 was the ultimate in performance art, eliciting howls of contempt from everywhere. His point was, that it was successful because it garnered complete media attention, was obvious in it's origin and was tremendously focussed. The problem with forest fires is that they are too often started naturally or by carelessness, so as much as they are immensely destructive, it is too easy to dismiss them as a natural, rather than political act. Along with the logistic problems of starting them, indicated in earlier posts, they just don't get the message across. Just as well, thanx.

m D e


A few months ago, there were many simultaneous large forest fires in Greece attributed to arson. So whether home grown criminals or foreign terrorists, it is not a crazy idea.