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10 Wild Fire Facts

1. Do these fires really serve a purpose?

Absolutely. Fires are an important part of the ecology. In a redwood forest, for instance, a good blaze cleans out the understory. It destroys conifers that leech nutrients from the soil (like Douglas firs), while leaving the ground fertile for new growth. If Nature had her way, a fire would occur naturally every 40 years or so in the redwood community. But thanks to fire prevention measures in the 20th century, that cycle has been interrupted, resulting in a greatly reduced amount of "old growth" forests. Even those fires started by natural means, such as lightning strikes, are often squashed before they have a chance to run their course. Many national parks now employ the use of "prescribed burnings" - carefully controlled fires of moderate intensity "“ in an effort to help restore Nature's balance.

A recent 60 Minutes segment about "mega-fires" revealed why scientists believe the rash of wildfires in the West will only get worse in the years to come. A one-two punch of over-conservation and climate change has turned the land into a veritable tinderbox. While plant life has grown thick, the lack of moisture (due in part to dwindling snow in the mountains) only works to fan the flames.

2. What's that red stuff they spray from planes onto raging wildfires?

Believe it or not, water is the key ingredient in the red mixture. It's also treated with thickeners, to turn the liquid into a "blanket," and keep it from evaporating. Additionally, those thickeners also help to cover more area. As for the color, that comes from iron oxide (aka rust) and is added to make it clear to firefighters which areas have been treated. Sometimes the mixture includes fertilizer to help spur plant growth as well.

3. How did the San Francisco Earthquake turn into the San Francisco Fire?

In 1906, a huge earthquake in San Francisco caused a considerable amount of damage, but the major devastation came after a fire raged for four days afterward. The quake destroyed most of the underground water pipes, so firefighters had limited resources to work with. On top of that, the tightly packed wooden-frame structures south of Market Street went up like kindling, and broken gas lines throughout the area added fuel to the inferno. In the meantime, thousands of residents realized that their homes were insured against fire damage (earthquake insurance didn't yet exist). Thus, dwellings that had survived the flames "“ but had been damaged by the tremors - were deliberately torched by their owners.

Why Dalmatians live in firehouses, how smoke detectors work, and why fire hydrants come in different colors (there's a reason) all after the jump...

4. What's the connection between Dalmatians and firehouses?

In the 1800s, fire engines were horse-driven carriages. Unfortunately, horses and other equipment found in a fire station were prime targets for thieves at that time, especially in some of the poorer urban areas (where many fires occurred). Some firefighters tried to combat thievery by sleeping alongside their steeds, but since they were often exhausted from fighting blazes, that idea didn't always work. Eventually, the solution became clear: a watchdog.

And not just any watchdog. You see, horses are not solitary animals. They prefer the companionship of some other animal; another horse, a dog, a goat or even a chicken. Left alone too long, they grow restless and neurotic. Dalmatians, it was discovered, formed an amazingly close bond with horses once they were introduced. They also became quite protective and possessive of their equine friends, so it became impossible for anyone to try to spirit away a horse under cover of the night. In fact, the spotted pooches were also used by stagecoach drivers for the same purpose, and became colloquially known as "coach dogs."

5. How do smoke detectors work?

Radioactive material is known for causing burns, but in the case of smoke detectors, it can also prevent them. Most household devices - known as "ion chamber" detectors - contain a very small amount of Americium-241, a radioisotope that is artificially created by bombarding plutonium with neutrons. The material was discovered during the Manhattan Project, and was first offered to industry in the early 1960s. The majority of Americium produced goes into making smoke detectors and one gram of the material is enough to equip some 5,000 detectors.

But back to how it works. The Americium emits alpha particles of radiation, which create ions of oxygen and nitrogen in the detector. A small electrical charge (supplied by DC or AC power) usually catches these ions. But when smoke enters the detector, it absorbs the alpha particles, the ionization rate falls, and the electrical current dips, causing the alarm to sound.

6. Why are fire hydrants painted different colors?

Currently, there is no law regulating the color-coding of fire hydrants, but the National Fire Protection Association has suggested standards that most municipalities follow to some extent. They suggest that the best color for the body of the hydrant is chrome yellow, but if an area has already designated another color, then it should be consistent (no polka dots on one, stripes on another).

Traditionally, hydrants connected to municipal water systems are painted yellow, while those that operate from a private system are red. Hydrants that pump non-potable water are either painted violet or have at least one violet cap. The bonnets and caps on the hydrants should also be painted to indicate the available water pressure. Red indicates the lowest pressure (less than 500 gallons per minute at 20 psi), followed by orange, green and ultimately light blue, which pumps 1500 GPM or more.

7. Did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned?

NeroSweltering summers were common in Rome, and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, better known as Nero, had traveled to the coastal resort town of Antium to escape the July heat in the year 64 CE. A fire broke out in one of the shops in Circus Maximus on the evening of July 19, and aided by strong winds, quickly raged out of control. When the emperor received word of the conflagration, he rushed back to the city and aided in the rescue efforts.

When the blaze was finally extinguished after six days, Nero opened up his palace to house many of the homeless, and used his personal funds to feed and shelter others. As for the bit about Nero fiddling, that part's inaccurate as well. Particularly, since the violin wasn't invented until the Renaissance.

8. What real fire appeared on the most-watched TV show ever?

In October 1982, brush fires on the Fox Studios Ranch set aflame much of the outdoor set of the TV series M*A*S*H. The cast was in the middle of filming the series finale, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen," so producers wrote the fire into the script. The smoldering structures were real parts of the set, and footage of a "bug out" from a previous year's episode was incorporated to show the movement of the facility. (Remember, the "M" in M*A*S*H stands for Mobile.) The land is now part of Malibu Canyon Creek State Park.

9. How do doctors determine what percentage a victim is burned?

The basic burn assessment relies on two protocols: the rule of nines, and the Lund-Browder chart. The rule of nines, developed in the 1950s, divided the human body into multiples of nine. Each arm is 9%, a leg is 18%, and so on. This method enabled a doctor to quickly examine the patient, see that he had burns on the palm of one hand, up the arm and half the chest, and determine that approximately 20 percent of his body had been burned.

This method proved less accurate when it came to children, however, since their physical proportions are quite different from those of the average adult. Two American doctors, Charles Lund and Newton Browder, came up with a burn chart in 1944 that broke down the human figure into separate, defined sections. It also included a formula for calculating body surface area based on the age of the patient.

10. And what bizarre fire profoundly affected renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright?

TaliesinOn August 15, 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright was working at his Chicago office. To the north, in his famous Taliesin estate in Wisconsin, were his mistress, Mamah Borthwick, her two children, and six servants. For reasons unknown, one of the servants "“ Julian Carleton "“ commited a heinous and murderous act of arson. He bolted the doors and windows, poured gasoline around the house, and set it on fire. Carleton then took a hatchet and attacked those who tried to break out of the home. Two of the workers miraculously survived, but everyone else perished. The flames devastated the living quarters, but spared Wright's studio. Although understandably heartbroken, the architect promised to reconstruct the home and did. It burned again in 1925, but rose once more from the ashes.

Like this post? Here are a couple more mental_floss articles you might dig as well: Our Favorite Vampires, The First Time News Was Fit to Print, Vol. XII, All Knotted Up: Culture's Greatest Tiebreakers, 5 Celebs Who Suffer from Aviophobia (and 1 who used to).

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A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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13 Great Jack Nicholson Quotes
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

Jack Nicholson turns 81 today. Let's celebrate with some of the actor's wit and wisdom.

1. ON ADVICE

"I hate advice unless I'm giving it. I hate giving advice, because people won't take it."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

2. ON REGRETS

"Not that I can think of. I’m sure there are some, but my mind doesn’t go there. When you look at life retrospectively you rarely regret anything that you did, but you might regret things that you didn’t do."

From an interview with The Talks

3. ON DEATH

"I'm Irish. I think about death all the time. Back in the days when I thought of myself as a serious academic writer, I used to think that the only real theme was a fear of death, and that all the other themes were just that same fear, translated into fear of closeness, fear of loneliness, fear of dissolving values. Then I heard old John Huston talking about death. Somebody was quizzing him about the subject, you know, and here he is with the open-heart surgery a few years ago, and the emphysema, but he's bounced back fit as a fiddle, and he's talking about theories of death, and the other fella says, 'Well, great, John, that's great ... but how am I supposed to feel about it when you pass on?' And John says, 'Just treat it as your own.' As for me, I like that line I wrote that, we used in The Border, where I said, 'I just want to do something good before I die.' Isn't that what we all want?"

From an interview with Roger Ebert

4. ON NERVES

''There's a period of time just before you start a movie when you start thinking, I don't know what in the world I'm going to do. It's free-floating anxiety. In my case, though, this is over by lunch the first day of shooting.''

From an interview with The New York Times

5. ON ACTING

"Almost anyone can give a good representative performance when you're unknown. It's just easier. The real pro game of acting is after you're known—to 'un-Jack' that character, in my case, and get the audience to reinvest in a new and specific, fictional person."

From an interview with The Age

6. ON MARRIAGE

"I never had a policy about marriage. I got married very young in life and I always think in all relationships, I've always thought that it's counterproductive to have a theory on that. It's hard enough to get to know yourself and as most of you have probably found, once you get to know two people in tandem it's even more difficult. If it's going to be successful, it's going to have to be very specific and real and immediate so the more ideas you have about it before you start, it seems to me the less likely you are to be successful."

From an interview with About.com

7. ON LYING

“You only lie to two people in your life: your girlfriend and the police. Everybody else you tell the truth to.”

From a 1994 interview with Vanity Fair

8. ON HIS SUNGLASSES

"They're prescription. That's why I wear them. A long time ago, the Middle American in me may have thought it was a bit affected maybe. But the light is very strong in southern California. And once you've experienced negative territory in public life, you begin to accept the notion of shields. I am a person who is trained to look other people in the eye. But I can't look into the eyes of everyone who wants to look into mine; I can't emotionally cope with that kind of volume. Sunglasses are part of my armor."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

9. ON MISCONCEPTIONS

"I think people think I'm more physical than I am, I suppose. I'm not really confrontational. Of course, I have a temper, but that's sort of blown out of proportion."

From an interview with ESPN

10. ON DIRECTING

"I'm a different person when suddenly it's my responsibility. I'm not very inhibited in that way. I would show up [on the set of The Two Jakes] one day, and we'd scouted an orange grove and it had been cut down. You're out in the middle of nowhere and they forget to cast an actor. These are the sort of things I kind of like about directing. Of course, at the time you blow your stack a little bit. ... I'm a Roger Corman baby. Just keep rolling, baby. You've got to get something on there. Maybe it's right. Maybe it's wrong. Maybe you can fix it later. Maybe you can't. You can't imagine the things that come up when you're making a movie where you've got to adjust on the spot."

From an interview with MTV

11. ON ROGER CORMAN

"There's nobody in there, that he didn't, in the most important way support. He was my life blood to whatever I thought I was going to be as a person. And I hope he knows that this is not all hot air. I'm going to cry now."

From the documentary Corman's World

12. ON PLAYING THE JOKER

"This would be the character, whose core—while totally determinate of the part—was the least limiting of any I would ever encounter. This is a more literary way of approaching than I might have had as a kid reading the comics, but you have to get specific. ... He's not wired up the same way. This guy has survived nuclear waste immersion here. Even in my own life, people have said, 'There's nothing sacred to you in the area of humor, Jack. Sometimes, Jack, relax with the humor.' This does not apply to the Joker, in fact, just the opposite. Things even the wildest comics might be afraid to find funny: burning somebody's face into oblivion, destroying a masterpiece in a museum—a subject as an art person even made me a little scared. Not this character. And I love that."

From The Making of Batman

13. ON BASKETBALL

"I've always thought basketball was the best sport, although it wasn't the sport I was best at. It was just the most fun to watch. ... Even as a kid it appealed to me. The basketball players were out at night. They had great overcoats. There was this certain nighttime juvenile-delinquent thing about it that got your blood going."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

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