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Boy Scouts settle Utah suit over 2002 fire

Published: Thursday, March 8 2007 10:15 a.m. MST

The ashes are now cooling over a controversial lawsuit filed by the state of Utah over a 14,000-acre wildfire started by a Boy Scout troop camping in the Uinta mountains.

The settlement requires the Boy Scouts of America to shell out more than $330,000 in cash and plant more than 9,000 tree seedlings on state land scorched by a Scout troop left unsupervised in 2002.

"They will institute education programs for Scouts and Scout leaders designed to prevent future fires," assistant Utah Attorney General Michael Johnson said Tuesday.

The lawsuit was filed against the Boy Scouts of America and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2004. At the time, the state sought more than $600,000 in damages for putting out the fire that spread over state, federal and private lands near the East Fork of the Bear River Scout Camp in rural Summit County.

It mirrors a federal lawsuit filed at the same time, seeking to recover $13 million in damages.

"Our suit is related to the money that the state spent to put out the fire," Johnson said.

The lawsuits claim a group of about 20 Scouts from an LDS Church ward in Peoa were camping overnight for a merit badge for wilderness survival. The Scouts were left in the care of a pair of 15-year-old Boy Scout counselors who left the boys to sleep in a tent because "it looked like it might rain," the federal lawsuit alleges.

Despite a fire ban in place, authorities said the Scouts started numerous fires that were even outside designated fire areas. The counselors knew about the fires, the lawsuits claim.

"No reasonable quantity of water was present to suppress the Shelter 11 Fire, either where it was built, or if it escaped," the federal lawsuit said. "No reasonable type nor quantity of tools or fire-fighting equipment were available to suppress the Shelter 11 fire nor keep it from escaping."

After the Scouts broke camp on June 28, the fire flared up and spread — burning 14,208 acres of federal, state and private land in Summit County. Federal agencies estimate it cost them more than $13 million to put out the blaze.

In a twist, the Boy Scouts of America filed its own lawsuit, claiming "unknown Scouts, on their own free time" started a new fire that spread. The lawsuit filed against three unnamed people acknowledged that the Scouts were unsupervised. That complaint is wrapped up in the federal lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America.

A federal trial was scheduled to start this week in the U.S. government's lawsuit. Instead, it was abruptly canceled with no new date set. There is speculation that the federal government is also in settlement talks. However, the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to say if it was in settlement talks.

With the state settlement, the LDS Church has now been dropped from both lawsuits. Both Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and then-U.S. Attorney Paul Warner took criticism for the lawsuits, despite their support for Scouting.

"We had to recover taxpayer funds," Johnson said.

The Great Salt Lake Council of the Boy Scouts said it plans to turn the seedling settlement into a lesson for Scouts and their leaders about the damage associated with wildfires.

"The council is also initiating a training program at our long-term residence facilities and day camps which will better educate Scouts and their leaders about fire safety, wildfire prevention and information on restrictions and closures," Kay Godfrey, a spokesman for the council, said in a statement Tuesday. "We are pleased to have settled this issue and are looking forward to partnering with the state on these important matters."


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com

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