The federal agencies in Utah are the number one in the nation for collecting costs on fires; we do it better than anybody. —Sheldon Wimmer, a state fire management officer with the BLM
SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah has recovered nearly $17 million in the past 17 years from individuals, organizations and corporations found responsible for causing 47 wildfires in Utah.
That makes Utah best in the nation for seeking damages from those who cause wildfires, said Sheldon Wimmer, a state fire management officer with the Bureau of Land Management.
But the reality is that only a very small number of the hundreds of man-caused fires in the state each year are ever pursued for recouped costs. And of the that limited number where responsibility can be proved, only a small fraction of the fire suppression cost is ever recouped.
"The federal agencies in Utah are the number one in the nation for collecting costs on fires; we do it better than anybody," Wimmer said. "We put a case together and we'll send a bill for collection to that individual for the cost of fire suppression and the rehabilitation of the fire also."
The amount collected by the U.S. Attorney's Office from different groups varies, but the money collected is usually through insurance and it rarely covers the total cost of fighting the fire.
For the 1996 Tank Fire in north Orem, which cost $1.5 million to fight, a mere $2,000 was collected from an individual. A $6.5 million settlement was reached with the Boy Scouts of America for the 2002 East Fork Fire, after the Scouts were initially sued for more than $13 million.
Last month, amid the early start of one of Utah and the nation's worst fire years, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared that those responsible for starting wildfires would be held responsible for the costs of the fire.
"If you start a fire, just be prepared to pay for it," Herbert said June 28. "If you're reckless, if you're negligent, if it's intentional, under those three issues in our state statutes today, you are liable for the cost of that fire."
While those responsible for starting a wildfire, whether started purposely, on accident or by negligence, can be formally charged with either a second- or first-degree felony, their assets limit the extent that they pay.
"The U.S. Attorney has a program called ACE — Affirmative Civil Enforcement — and they go through a process where then they will take legal action against the individual or corporation, like a railroad or power line or whatever, to collect the costs of the fire," Wimmer said. "They'll go after whatever assets they've got, if they haven't got anything, then they'll close the case."
Wimmer said if an individual has homeowners insurance, that is where money is recouped. He said if a homeowner has a $300,000 insurance policy and they are responsible for a million-dollar fire, the U.S. Attorney's Office would recoup, at most, $300,000.
"They'll take what they got but they won't be paying the rest of their lives," Wimmer said. "That would be involuntary servitude."
Rocky Mountain Power is listed as a defendant in four settlements the U.S. Attorney's Office received, totaling more than $485,000.
Maria O'Mara, external communications manager for Rocky Mountain Power, said the company works with all parties to resolve these matters, but that settlement agreements are compromises of disputed claims and should not be interpreted as an admission of liability or wrongdoing. She also said fires also affect Rocky Mountain Power and that it practices fire prevention tactics.
"We are acutely aware of the risks of range fires, as our facilities are greatly exposed to those risks. So far, 15 of this year’s fires have damaged roughly 200 poles and transmission structures in our electric system," O'Mara said.
"We have employees trained in fire prevention and we use vehicles with spark arresters. We have also assisted, when asked by appropriate authorities, in fire suppression efforts. Protecting and enhancing the environment is at the forefront of our business strategy."
Collecting money happens on several levels of government. The federal government settles suits against those they have found responsible for causing wildfires. State and county governments also seek to recover firefighting costs.
Mike Johnson, an attorney with the Utah Attorney General's Office, said that in the past six years there have been about a dozen cases that the Attorney General's Office has settled, totalling between $1 million and $1.5 million.
"Most of the land in Utah is federal land, and the federal government has more firefighting resources and ends up incurring a lot higher firefighting bills than the state, so they tend to have much larger expenditures and much larger claims that they are pursuing than the state does in general," Johnson said.
"Sometimes it will burn on both, but usually the federal claims tend to be bigger just because they have so much land and spend so much more money than the state does on those efforts to suppress the fires."
Johnson said Utah was involved, in some way, in many of the federal cases brought against organizations and individuals. He also said that an individual's ability to pay does matter in deciding whether to pursue a case or not.
"We are trying to recover taxpayer money spent putting out these fires, but don't want to throw good money after bad if it is going to be a big effort to show that someone was responsible but they don't really have the ability to pay," Johnson said.
"They may still be pursued. Sometimes we'll settle those for a smaller amount that is not going be a big percentage of what the fire costs were but will still have some impact on that person's finance in a way that would cause them to not want to negligently start fires."
When someone doesn't have the ability to pay, Johnson said, they still need to actively avoid causing wildfires because there can be criminal charges.
"In some of these cases there's also been a criminal side if it was some kind of reckless burning, people can get cited or have criminal prosecution as well as the civil side of things," he said.
So far this year Utah has had 486 fires and an overwhelming number of them, 426, are human caused. Of those, Heather O'Hanlon, a BLM fire information officer, said possibly 75 of those might be able to be traced to a responsible party, and 25 of them might actually be pursued.
O'Hanlon said the various levels of negligence and the results of the fire are weighed in determining whether it is worth pursuing reimbursement for costs.
"Is it worth our time to go forward and collect, or is it not," O'Hanlon said. "And then if it is worth our time, to go forward and collect … There's so many decisions on the tree that have to be made that where you actually go to a point where you are going through with a case."