Agencies looking to crack down, recover costs on Utah's human-linked wildfires

Friday , July 14, 2017 - 5:15 AM1 comment

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

Fighting wildland fires is tough. So is recovering costs for those fires when they’re human-caused.

In Utah, people cause a significant chunk of the fires burning in forests, fields and rangeland throughout the state. The winter’s heavy precipitation brought dense springtime growth, which means heightened fire risk this summer and fall. Meanwhile, budgets for state and federal land management agencies remain tight. Those agencies are aggressively pursuing cost recovery for human-caused fires, and warning Utahns to take precautions so they don’t burn thousands of acres — and get hit with a bill for thousands of dollars.

Since 2003, the U.S. Forest Service has pursued more than $33 million in civil actions after fighting 58 human-caused fires in Utah. They’ve only managed to recover around one-third of those funds. 

 

“All fires are different, just like all crimes are different. There are a lot of factors that come into play,” said Micheal McKinney, assistant special agent in charge for the Intermountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service. “I think there’s always a level of frustration. You can’t solve everything.”

Tracing the origin of fires has been honed to a science. Trained investigators can track a large-scale fire back to a single small area, “maybe the size of a pinhead,” McKinney said.

Figuring out the cause isn’t the hard part. The trouble often comes when tracking down the person or people who caused it, especially for wildland fires. 

In that remote environment, often there are no witnesses. Sometimes evidence is destroyed during the firefighting process.

 

Fires don’t follow human-made land boundaries, either, which means many agencies are often roped into the fight — and cost-recovery process — including counties, municipalities, federal agencies and the state.

In Box Elder County, wildland fires are common due to a combination of large, open public land or rangeland and the prevalence of fire-prone fuels like cheatgrass, juniper and pinyon.

“The biggest fire that we’ve billed was about $35,000 in Blue Creek,” said Corey Barton, Box Elder County Fire Marshal.

In 2016, the county billed individuals more than $12,000 for three separate fires, according to a records request. In 2015, they billed nearly $30,000 four four different fires. 

Sometimes insurance companies will cover firefighting costs, like when a vehicle’s dragging chain ignites dry grass growing along a highway. Sometimes, those found in the wrong have to shell out the funds. Often times, however, it’s hard to figure out who caused the fire, leaving costs to the taxpayers.

“It’s really hard if we don’t know who started it,” Barton said. “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.”

It’s also frequently the case that a person doesn’t realize he or she was the source of a wildland fire, officials said.

The county spent around $400,000 on fire mitigation efforts this year, Barton said, but when it comes to actual fires the county turns to the state for help. Most Utah counties participate in the Wildland Fire Suppression Fund, administered by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. It works like insurance.

 

“Last year, my firefighting costs for the county would’ve been right around $3 million had we not participated in insurance fund,” Barton said.

The division, in turn, works to recover those funds when fires are human-caused.

The most high-profile wildland this summer so far is the Brian Head fire, which reportedly started with someone using a weed torch.

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It started on lands under the jurisdiction of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. It spread to Dixie National Forest lands and Color Country District Bureau of Land Management lands. It’s still burning. The impacted area included 71,673 acres as of Wednesday, July 12. A team of 560 personnel is involved in fighting the fire.

The blaze is still under investigation, but those damages will need to be paid by someone. 

Wildland fires started by people became so problematic this season that agencies deployed a National Fire Prevention and Education Team.

As of July 11, Utah has had 376 human-caused fires this season so far. They burned a total of 111,552 acres. Around 80 percent of all fires in the state this season have been human-caused, said Chris Asbjorn with the National Fire Prevention and Education Team. 

By comparison, for the 2016 season, 60 percent of wildland fires were caused by people, which burned 101,328 acres.

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“Then there seems to be a trend in four primary causes across the state — campfires, burn piles, shooting and vehicles,” Asbjorn said. “So those four activities combined with conditions present are what’s responsible.”

It’s important to check on fire restrictions where Utahns live and recreate, Asbjorn said. 

“Even at the local level, make sure you have the correct permits, that you never leave fires unattended and that they’re completely out before you leave,” he said. “With shooting, making sure you have water and a shovel with you in case a fire does start, and that you’re using the correct ammunition.”

Some areas restrict steel ammunition for target shooting, for example. The Intermountain Region prohibits exploding targets.

Jason Curry, public information officer for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said the percentage of human-caused fires versus naturally caused ones can be skewed depending on the time of year.

“July is where we start to see more lightning, prior to that don’t see a lot of natural causes at all,” he said. “It’s difficult to make fair comparison … sometimes more people are being irresponsible, sometimes Mother Nature is not doing enough to balance the statistics.”

The Standard-Examiner sent a records request to the division to determine how often the agency has recovered costs for human-caused wildfires in the past 10 years. But it’s not something they’re able to track.

The recovery process can be long and complex, Curry said.

“Often times, we see fires that happen and maybe two years later is the earliest we’d see recovery process come to fruition,” he said. “Sometimes it’s up to 10 years later.”

If the fire can be traced back to a single individual, and burned within the confines of the division’s jurisdiction, reimbursement can be as simple as a settlement with the guilty party. But if the fire spreads to multiple agencies or costs balloon beyond what a person can pay, things become more complicated. 

Curry figures the state recovers “less than 10 percent” of costs for human-caused fires.

“Most of the time, that’s because ... we don’t know who started the fire. We don’t know who’s responsible,” he said.  

The low recovery rate is also partly because, in the past, the division only pursued cases involving large fires.

“If there’s a $5,000 fire, a lawsuit will not be worth the time and effort required to get money back,” Curry said. 

But, “we’re always looking for better ways to pursue costs,” he said. “Right we’re now in process of changing our rules and finding a way to do an administrative pursuit for costs (for smaller fires), so we can operate like a billing entity.”

Still, Curry acknowledge the role Utahns can play in reducing the amount of wildfires burning around the state. 

“We only can have an impact on those fires caused by people out doing things, being careless,” he said. “We’re counting on the public to be careful and help us out.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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