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The Fires of Canneto di Caronia, Part 5
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Latest update, this part, 16 Feb 2017 2004

The author is currently betting on methane or some other volcanic related gas as being the primary fuel. Best he can tell, the sea-level village at Canneto is more or less a compact walled city, where the outer walls of the homes that line the single village street constitute the city wall. If that is the case, then the walled city would be more prone to prevent dispersion of combustible gases than would be a collection of stand-alone homes. One "Fires of Canneto" discussion group contributor suggests that when winter is over, residents will open up their houses more and the problem will likely go away. (The author has not yet seen any reports regarding the results of air sampling at Canneto.)

Ignition sources, which can be considered as related to human activity, would include, electrical arcs occurring in household appliances or non-intrinsically safe electrical/electronic devices (loose battery contacts on cell phones for instance). One other human activity related ignition source, which should be considered at Canneto, is volcanic ash producing electrical sparks by triboluminescence when crushed or ground underfoot. Vigorous sweeping of floors, where somebody really bears down on the broom, might even produce ash sparks.

11 April 2004
One possible source of static electricity buildup might be the friction of gases moving through the ground. This would akin to static charge build up on aircraft as they plow through the atmosphere. There may already be a body of data on this subject (the author hasn't looked for it yet), but if not it should be fairly easy to conduct experiments to check for the effect. [Reader input solicited.]

Suppose, for example, that gas molecules being forced to move through the earth (the volcanic thing) get electrons stripped from them during glancing/frictional collisions with rock faces and soil particles. If that happened to be the case, then the gas that finally escapes to the open air would be positively charged and the ground through which it passed would have acquired a negative charge. When the charged air molecules, say inside somebody's kitchen, come into contact with metal objects which are insulated from ground, those metal objects will tend to release electrons to the gas molecules and thereby become positively charged themselves. In conditions of low relative humidity (In mid January 2004 the humidity was very low in the Sicily region. See Part 2. ), substantial electrostatic charges can build up in the metal objects which can then lead to electrical discharges/arcs when someone is about to touch them. If the gas which was involved in the electrical charge transport process happened to be, say, methane, has also built up to a flammable concentration, ka-floosh!

About metal objects becoming charged by air molecules

In the winter of 1971-1972 I was dinking with a corona-discharge powered ion wind generator. I found, to my dismay, that a lot of ions (charged air molecules) escaped from the immediate area of my apparatus and caused metallic surfaces in the room to build up static charges. Those charged surfaces would shock me when touched. I hated that! Out of desperation I devised a double barreled ion wind generator where one barrel (so to speak) spewed out positive ions and the other spewed out negative ions. The oppositely charged streams neutralized each other downstream and I returned to being happy and shockless. . . . [Changed to first person narrative 08 Sep 2013.] [Link to patent added on 16 Feb 2017.]

In some cases, (if a grounding object is in close enough proximity to the metallic object) the static charge buildup may become high enough to arc to ground without human intervention. (The power-plug prongs of an unplugged appliance's power cord lying on a floor might do the trick.)

12 April 2004
In a 5 April 2004 Reuters news report, courtesy of MSNBC News, a Canneto resident, Antonio Pezzino, in talking about the fires, is quoted as saying, "I've seen an air conditioner burst into flames and burn down in 30 seconds."

In that particular case the ignition source was most likely an arc between air conditioner electrical contacts. The fuel for the initial bursting into flames may have been the hypothetical methane (or some other, as yet unidentified, gas.) If a flammable gas was the only fuel then the flare-up should have extinguished itself in less than one second, but the air conditioner was reported to "burn down in 30 seconds." A secondary, more sustaining, fuel seems to have been part of the picture. Volcanic ash (which is reported to be flammable) which had settled inside the air conditioner (especially in the condenser or air filter) may have been the culprit.

Caution! If it turns out that some flammable gas present in Canneto, regardless of its source, volcanic ash cleanup will be more complicated because the physically abused ash can be a source of sparks. Until flammable gas is eliminated as a contributing problem, minimizing electrical sparks inside homes will be paramount.

If sulfurous fumes start to be detected in Canneto, inhabitants should start to go to other towns.

11 September 2004
On 7 Sep 2004 Reuters News reported that a new fissure has opened on the southeastern side of Mt. Etna, which is "oozing" out non-gaseous lava. This news item, . . . was reported by the Google™ Alerts system.

According to Volcano News - John Seach (Saturday 11 September 2004)(*) the Etna fracture opened without seismic warning. "The new fissure, combined with a layer of snow, created impressive explosions." On Thursday, 9 September, Volcano News reported that, as of Wednesday afternoon, seismic activity was being recorded at Mt. Etna with increasing frequency and strength.

Readers may view Etna's new activity on the Etna Trekking or the INGV [Doesn't work.] WebCams. These units refresh about every thirty seconds. Keep in mind that, time-wise, Sicily is 7 hours ahead of U.S.Central Standard Time. (2:00 pm US CST = 9:00 pm at Mt. Etna.)

The Etna Trekking WebCam installation seems to be located on a cindercone just north of the ridge that forms the northern boundary of the Bove Valley. It has two cameras. The INGV webpage has maps that show their camera locations.

The following four notes were made while the author was coming to get a handle on the location of the Etna Trekking installation. It demonstrates a well-worn stumble and bumble technique for problem solving.

11 September 2004, 7:00 p.m. CST
Shortly before 12:36 a.m. 12 September (local time at Mt. Etna) the Etna Trekking web camera became repointed by some 30-45 degrees (to the left?) such that it currently seems to be aimed at a town some 15-20 miles to the west of the camera position. The camera may even be pointing southward toward Catania. (The author of this web page gets challenged by directions.) [Updates to follow.]

11 Sep 2004, 10:36 p.m CST
At 05:35 a.m., Sicily time, a gaseous glow appeared on the mountain slope just to the right of the line of sight to the distant town. Will have to wait for sunrise to see where the camera is actually pointed.

11 Sep 2004, 10:30 p.m. CST
At about 6:30 a.m. 12 Sep., Sicily time, the sun is just about on the horizon. It appears ambiguous as to whether the camera angle changed in the horizontal direction. (The lighting level of the town may have swamped out the fissure glow.) The town in the distance is apparently south of the camera. In the daylight you can see down inside what must be a crater or valley. The new fissure activity is apparently just over the nearest rim of the crater/valley. The webcam seems to be pointing East to Southeast. It did however tilt backward/upward about five to ten degrees back around 12:36 a.m. Sicily time. . . .

12 Sep 2004, 01:00 a.m. CST
News reports say that the fissure is feeding lava into the Bove Valley. Based on that, and the author's current interpretation of shadows in the webcam pictures, the webcam would appear to be located on the exterior northern flank of the Bove valley and is aimed generally southward across the valley and toward Catania.

22 October 2004
The Google™ News Alerts system forwarded a link to the following article.
Agenzia Giornalistica Italia - Italy
(AGI) - Messina, 21 October - [Paraphrased and editied.] The arrival of experts from the Region and from Civil Protection is expected in Canneto di Caronia, ... where new phenomena [not fires] have revived local worries. Holes in eight water pipes in three different houses are reported to have formed spontaneously. A local expert offers the hypothesis that cathode currents from ungrounded electrical appliances find their ways to water pipes (to reach ground) where an effect called the partridge eye takes place.

Full story (in English) is at: AGI online.(*)
(*) URL http://www.agi.it/english/news.pl?doc=200410211348-1093-RT1-CRO-0-NF11&page=0&id=agionline-eng.oggitalia is no longer current. Story may be archived but subscription is required. [22 August 2005]

27 October 2004
Investigators should find out if the electrical appliances which were involved in the Canneto di Caronia fire incidents last February-April were of the two-prong electrical power plug type, where neither side of the electrical circuit comes in contact with the appliance shell. Appliances that do not have a third conductor for grounding would be more prone to store up a static electric charge than units with the grounding provision. Un-plugged appliances, regardless of how many wires are in the power cable, would be especially subject to building up large static charges.


(1) Thomas Gold, http://people.cornell.edu/pages/tg21/Earthq.html - Earthquakes, Gases, and Earthquake Prediction, (1994). [Ref is cited in Part 3. Link needs updating.]

(2)Thomas Gold, http://people.cornell.edu/pages/tg21/eyewit.html, - Eye-witness Accounts of Several Major Earthquakes, (1987). [Ref is cited in Part 3. Link needs updating.]

(3) F. Antonioli, S. Kershaw, P. Renda, D. Rust, G. Belluomini, M. Cerasoli, U Radtke and S. Silenzi, [DOC] http://aiqua.irtr.rm.cnr.it/23%2024%2025.doc Altitude of the Last Interglacial Highstand in Sicily (Italy) and its Implication for Tectonic [Ref cited in Part 4. Link needs updating.]

Related Articles

"Small Volcano" Near Rome Airport - [Link installed on 08 Sep 2013.]

La pericolosità simica in Italia - (In Italian.) [The seismic dangers in Italy] English speaking readers may be able to right click on the page and select the Google™ Translate into English function. The article mentions a 20 March 2004 update of seismic danger zones in Italy, including Sicily. (A miniature map insert, a preview?, shows what seems to be a seismic hot spot at or just west (within ten miles) of Canneto di Caronia.)

Sono solo fenomeni naturali... probabilmente. Dichiarato lo stato di calamità naturale per Caronia - (In Italian) [Only a natural phenomena?... probably. State of natural calamity declared for Caronia.] Article discusses ways of predicting earthquakes with possible sub-surface seismic connections to the Canneto fires in mind.

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Contact: Robert Fritzius at fritzius@bellsouth.net