Struggle to Recoup Costs Related to Fighting Utah Wildfires

July 19, 2017

Many of the state’s wildfires over the last two years have been sparked by people, but recouping firefighting costs that can run into the millions of dollars isn’t easy, according to Utah fire officials.

The U.S. Forest Service has only been able to recover one-third of the $33 million they’ve pursued though civil actions in Utah since 2003, the Standard-Examiner in Ogden 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 officials 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,” Corey Barton, the fire marshal in northern Utah’s Box Elder County. “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 (258 square kilometers) 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 that the fire has cost so far would come after police finish investigating whether criminal charges are warranted, Jason Curry with 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.

“Often times, 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 the state’s wildfires were caused by people. This year so far, that portion has risen to 80 percent, though it’s still early in the season for natural lightning-sparked blazes, officials said.

The main causes of human-sparked wildfires are campfires, burn piles, shooting and vehicles, said Chris Asbjorn with 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, he said.

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