DUTCH JOHN, Daggett County The talk in the tiny town of Dutch John is that last July's Mustang Ridge fire that officially consumed 20,038 acres and cost $3 million to suppress could have been quickly extinguished if not for orders from an Ashley National Forest Service employee who was first on the scene.
The blaze forced the evacuation of Dutch John and scarred recreation land near the popular Flaming Gorge Reservoir. It also took thousands of dollars in revenue out of the pockets of service businesses and river and hunting guides. Reclamation costs continue to be tallied.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Overby, the investigation into the man-caused Mustang Ridge blaze the most destructive of the 2002 fire season will be completed by the end of the summer. He has declined further comment until his report is released.
The fire that began last July 1 and lasted for 10 days was caused by sparks flying from a camper that lost a wheel as it went over the cattle guard just past the Mustang Ridge turnoff on Highway 191.
According to witnesses at the scene, the driver of the camper realized what had happened and pulled over to try to put out the small blaze but was reportedly ordered by Ashley National Forest Service employee David Chavez to continue to drive. The man went on dragging the broken trailer with its axle grinding the pavement and sending sparks sailing, creating new blazes.
Daggett County Sheriff Gaylen Jarvie was near Flaming Gorge Reservoir just minutes away from the rising smoke when he heard the fire call on his radio.
"When we pulled up, there was a guy pulling a little camper down the highway just shooting sparks over by Mustang on 191. We watched him ignite two more fires from the sparks shooting off," said Jarvie. "I hollered at him to quit moving and he said, 'Make up your mind, they told me I had to leave,' but I said don't move."
Jarvie said the man told him he had stopped to try to put out the first small fire created by the sparks but that a Forest Service employee insisted he leave.
"He said he tried to explain things to him, but he wouldn't listen," Jarvie said, adding that he didn't know the man but recalled he may have been from Texas. "He certainly seemed like he was telling the truth, because the driving was ruining his little camper, too, it was tearing a hole in the corner."
A river guide with a truck full of clients who pulled up to offer manpower, water and blankets to attack the fire while it was at a stage he believed to be "controllable," said Chavez threatened to arrest him for the offer of aid.
"It could have been taken care of if there would have been somebody there, easy. It was fairly small and the wind wasn't blowing at the moment," said the guide, who did not want to be identified due to possible reprisals from the Forest Service.
Another outfitter, who declined to be identified for the same reason, said he's concerned the Forest Service is responsible for the fire in more ways than one. "They had it out once and let it get going again the second day. It was totally absurd what they did up there and we lost a lot of money."
The Dutch John man said when he realized the west side of the fire on Highway 191, which had been suppressed the night before, was going to rise again due to increasing winds, he called the Forest Service office to alert them was told to "Mind my own business, they know how to fight fires."
He said he filed a complaint against Chavez, who has since transferred to New Mexico. The transfer wasn't forced, said Brad Exton, Ashley National Forest public services group leader. "He put in for a job vacancy down in New Mexico and he was chosen. It was his choice to apply for the job." Chavez was a trained law enforcement officer with a fire background.
According to Forest Service policy, it appears Chavez handled the situation at the scene of the fire according to regulations with a few exceptions.
Loyal Clark, public affairs officer for the Uinta National Forest, said Forest Service policy prohibits civilians who come upon a fire from stopping to halt the blaze.
"If someone is driving down the road and they are a civilian and they have water in their camper trailer, we strongly discourage them from doing anything, just call 911," said Clark, adding that even a small fire presents several unknown hazards.
However, threats of arrest aren't normally something a Forest Service employee would use. "As for jailing someone, if it appeared suspicious such as a campfire started illegally, but they are very rarely ever arrested or threatened with arrest unless they are interfering with a firefighter trying to do his job," Clark stated.
Flaming Gorge District Ranger Ilene Richman said she is unfamiliar with the circumstances regarding allegations that Chavez ordered the disabled trailer to continue to move on, but said she supported decisions that were made. "It is real easy to second guess during the chaotic moments of the fire, but I am confident that it was handled properly," she said.
Deloy Adams, part owner and general manager of Flaming Gorge Lodge, took a big hit due to the fire and saw his revenues drop last year by about 30 percent a month. But Adams believes it's time to put the fire controversy to rest and focus on new opportunities. "It was a terrible thing, and it certainly could have been handled better, but the fire is behind us now, there are some real positives coming out of this. The wildlife resources people are saying this will become the top elk and deer habitat in the entire state," said Adams. "The fire didn't really touch the Green River corridor and it didn't touch the fishing, the habitat is in good shape. I feel the Forest Service does an excellent job of taking care of our recreation area up here . . . basically you've got to take the hand that's dealt you and push on."
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