OGDEN — Many of Utah's wildfires over the past two years have been sparked by people, but recouping firefighting costs that can run into the millions of dollars isn't easy, state fire officials say.
The U.S. Forest Service has only been able to recover one-third of the $33 million it has pursued though civil actions in Utah since 2003, the Standard-Examiner reports.
Though fire investigations are now sophisticated enough to track the origin of a large fire back to an area the size of a pinhead, that doesn't mean they can always determine who is at fault. Sometimes, people don't even realize they've started a fire.
"It's really hard if we don't know who started it," said Corey Barton, Box Elder County fire marshal. "When we say 'human-caused,' that doesn't mean we know who did it. We know how it started but don't have anyone to hold responsible."
In the case of the wildfire that torched more than 100 square miles near the southern Utah ski town of Brian Head, officials have said it was sparked by someone burning weeds.
Any move to recoup the $34 million the fire has cost so far would come after police finish investigating whether criminal charges are warranted, Jason Curry, of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, told the Associated Press.
If investigators know who started the fire, they can often reach a settlement on reimbursement. Insurance companies sometimes cover firefighting costs when the spark is caused by a dragging chain on a vehicle, for example.
But things get more complicated if multiple agencies work on the fire, or fighting costs are more than a person can pay.
"Oftentimes we see fires that happen, and maybe two years later is the earliest we'd see recovery process come to fruition," Curry told the Standard-Examiner. "Sometimes it's up to 10 years later."
He estimates the state recovers less than 10 percent of the cost of human-caused wildfires, though the state typically only pursues reimbursement for larger blazes.
Last year, about 60 percent of Utah wildfires were caused by people. This year, that portion so far has risen to 80 percent, though it's still early in the season for lightning-sparked blazes, officials said.
The main causes of human-sparked wildfires are campfires, burn piles, shooting and vehicles, said Chris Asbjorn, of the National Fire Prevention and Education Team.
People doing those things should make sure they have the right permits, never leave fires unattended and ensure they're using the right ammunition, Asbjorn said.