Nearly $17 million collected from those who caused fires in Utah during past 2 decades

Only small portion of fires result in recouped costs

Published: Saturday, July 14 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Smoke from the wildfire near the East Fork of the Bear River Boy Scout Camp glows from flames and the sun shining through on June 29, 2002.

Ravell Call, Deseret News archives

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.

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