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10 Wild Fire Facts

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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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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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