July 5, 2003 - I was on a three day fourth of July visit to my Uncle and Aunt's 40 some acre property on the Kaweah River just outside of Sequoia National Park, CA, USA. The property is in a fairly rugged canyon with scattered oaks and lots of dry grass at this time of year.
Around noon I wanted to fly my traction kite, a 6.3 square meter Peter Lynn C-quad in what I would estimate to be 2 to 8 mph gusty winds. Although these winds may seem light, anyone who has flown a C-Quad knows that one of this size can generate some scary power even in winds of that magnitude. I chose an open field next to my Aunt's house, maybe 100 plus yards long and half that wide. With 85 ft kitelines on this 4 line kite I should have had enough room to safely keep the kite away from the power lines that surrounded it. However, I had backed up into the upwind v-shaped corner of the field so I could have some room to show off to my cousins how my kite could pull me across the field on my mountain board. The field proved to be too uneven to make a good run, so I spent a little time trying to teach two of my cousins how to control this powerful kite.
The trouble came when I was trying to teach my female cousin, 35 years old, how to stear the kite. She was trying to get the feel of the steering lag that you sometimes have in light and gusty winds. She had already been overpowered by the kite once and had to release the handles because she got scared. The second time, the kite was on the left edge of the power window, pointing about 30 degrees up from horizontal and a gust came in. Again, she was overpowered and let go of the handles, and the kite flew straight into the powerlines on the left side of the V. BZZZZZT! POW! was the sound of the 17 foot wide kite closing the circuit between two powerlines and incinerating immediately in a small explosion. POOF!! In less than a second there were six foot flames in the dry brush underneath the lines. The flames were spreading so quickly I had to run as fast as I could to get to my jeep at the edge of the field so it wouldn't burn up. In a few minutes another fire sprouted up about two hundred yards across the gravel road from embers being carried by the wind, and I realized then that that was just the beginning.
Thanks to my cousins and uncle, and some garden hoses and shovels my aunt's house was saved. The local fire departments and hundreds of firefighters and about eight aircraft came in and contained the blaze within about 8 hours, although the battle continued for at least two days until the time of this writing. 170 acres were burned, including three structures on my Uncles' property.
Thankfully, the fire department ruled it as an accident and non-billable so at this point it appears that no one in my family will be stuck with the half-million to million dollar charge it took to put out the blaze.
It appeared that both I and my cousin felt responsible for the fire. For me, I felt the resposibility was mine because it was my kite, my activity, and I should have had enough awareness to prevent that accident. In retrospect I can think of a few reasons why it happened :
1. Insufficient precaution - flying too close to the powerlines. I am sure I had heard more than once kites should not be flown around powerlines. I knew that large birds incinerate themselves on powerlines. But, I had draped my kites over powerlines a few times before and nothing happened, so foolishly this threat wasn't real to me. I think the difference here was that the othere kites this had happened to were smaller, and didn't have the 17 foot span that allowed the kite to arc between the lines.
2. No dead man safety release - I believe I could have prevented this if I would have set up a leash and ring dead man safety release and attached it to my cousin's wrist. That way when she let go of the handles the kite would have been immediately depowered and not flown the extra 5-10 feet to hit the powerlines. I had assumed since we were using handles and not bars the kite would be depowered quickly enough to keep anyone from getting hurt. And, I had not considered the powerlines to be a safety risk, only an annoyance.
3. The two above factors combined with letting someone fly the kite who could be easily overpowered in those conditions.
Sometimes you learn lessons the hard way. See pictures below.
If for some reason the pictures are not viewable here, click on this ---> http://photos.yahoo.com/bamoffthelip
They are in the "Fire!!" folder.