Brian Head Wildfire

Smoke billows above the Brian Head Fire burning in central Utah in June 2017. 

Robert Ray Lyman didn't mean to start a wildfire on the day he raked tree debris into piles and lit one of the piles on fire using a lighter and lighter fluid.

He had sprayed water on the ground around his cabin, filled two 5-gallon jugs with water, prepared a water hose and kept the burn piles close to a nearby spring and rock feature.

But the jugs were too heavy for him to carry and the hose didn't reach far enough to stop the fire that eventually spread across tens of thousands of acres in Iron and Garfield counties and required more than a thousand people to evacuate their homes in Brian Head.

"It was an accident. That’s what is important," said defense attorney Andrew Deiss. "It was not negligent."

More details about how the catastrophic Brian Head Fire started were revealed during a preliminary hearing at the 4th District Court in Provo on Tuesday.

The wildfire burned more than 71,673 acres, destroyed 13 homes and cost nearly $40 million to fight in June 2017, the Associated Press reported.

Residents near Brian Head Ski Resort evacuated for nearly two weeks, and local businesses that relied on summer tourism reportedly suffered income losses and ranchers lost land used for grazing cattle and sheep.

Prosecutors argued Lyman knew the risk and recklessly ignored the danger of starting a fire in the middle of the summer.

"Ironically, some of the best evidence that shows Mr. Lyman was aware of a risk and disregarded it were his own ineffectual precautions," said Iron County chief deputy attorney Shane Klenk.

Lyman, 62, is facing a class A misdemeanor of reckless burning and a class B misdemeanor of failure to obtain a permit.

The Taylorsville resident appeared in court wearing a suit and tie and listened quietly to the arguments and discussions. He pleaded not guilty to the charges after Judge James Brady ruled the case will continue to a jury trial.

"The real question that has been presented by counsel is if the action was reckless," Brady said. "Those are facts a jury has to determine."

Prosecutors called two witnesses during the hearing to provide probable cause that a crime was committed when Lyman lit the fire near his cabin.

Iron County fire warden Ryan Riddle testified the law requires people to request a burn permit between June and October. Lyman reportedly did not have a burn permit and did not request a permit anytime that summer.

When he responded to the fire near Lyman's cabin, the flames were already 80 to 100 feet high.

"The overall weather conditions that day were dry and hot," he said. "The suppression efforts were extremely dangerous and the risk to public safety was extremely dangerous."

Bureau of Land Management fire investigator Dan Barnes stated he spoke with Lyman at the cabin two days after the fire started.

"We started talking about what had happened that day," he said. "He demonstrated positions he had been in, how he had tried to stop the fire and precautions he had taken."

Lyman told Barnes he had hired loggers to remove at least 100 trees around his cabin and property in 2016. But the loggers left heaps of tree debris like branches and leaves around the area.

To get rid of the debris, Lyman reportedly raked the material into burn piles. He had reportedly already burned several piles earlier that week and planned on burning two more piles the day the wildfire started.

Barnes said the burn piles were almost 12 feet in diameter and three to five feet apart. A standard campfire ring, he explained is barely three feet in diameter.

Lyman "absolutely did not" take enough precautions to prevent a possible wildfire, the inspector stated.

Before calling 911, Barnes said Lyman had tried to stop the fire by pouring water on the flames, using the hose and going higher on the hillside to move branches and debris out of the way.

"He started to get burned for his efforts. He was running out of breath," Barnes said, adding only five minutes passed before the fire was "out of control and moving through the trees."

Barnes added that he believed Lyman is a pleasant person who took full responsibility for starting the fire. 

"He never intended to start a forest fire," he said. "But the fact that the forest caught on fire shows those precautions were not enough near appropriate."

Defense attorney Deiss repeatedly argued the reason Lyman wanted to clear the debris was to create a defensible space around his cabin in case of a wildfire.

Whether or not his actions were successful in preventing the fire from spreading is another matter, he stated.

"All of his activities were based on the goal to mitigate risk," Deiss said. "We did not hear any testimony that would indicate whether or not there was a gross deviation from the standard care of an ordinary person."

He also explained that social media posts and media coverage had spread unfounded rumors about Lyman.

Some rumors reported that Lyman had started the fire with a weed torch or a blow torch or a flamethrower. Other rumors stated a police officer ordered Lyman not to burn anything or that Lyman was drunk during the incident.

"Those statements create an image of a person who is indifferent and reckless. Not someone like Bob, who was trying to make the world a safer place," Deiss said.

The criminal case moved to Provo after a judge in Cedar City decided Lyman wouldn’t get a fair trial in the county where the fire occurred.

Since Brian Head and Iron County are small communities and Lyman does not live in the area, the defense worried about finding an impartial jury. 

Lyman already pleaded not guilty in October 2017 and his case already had a pretrial conference and several jury trials scheduled. But prosecutors recently changed the subsections listed in the charges which requires the case to start over.

Under the class A misdemeanor charge of reckless burning, prosecutors changed subsection b — which states a defendant started a fire and failed to take reasonable measures to control the fire or promptly alert authorities — to subsection d — the defendant started a fire and damaged property that exceeds $1,500 in damage.

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