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People who accidentally start wildfires face hefty fines, criminal charges, records show

People who accidentally start wildfires hefty face fines, criminal charges, records show (Photo: KUTV)

(KUTV) In 2002, the Boy Scouts of America paid $6.5 million and had to plant a bunch of trees following the East Fork Fire. That was about half of the $14 million it cost to fight the blaze.

In 2012, the Wood Hollow fire in Sanpete County cost a power company $4.75 million after a power pole was deemed the culprit.

Just this month, a $300,000 settlement was reached with a man accused of starting another 2012 fire by shooting at explosive targets in Utah County.

Jared Bennett with the U.S. Attorney’s Office says they're fairly successful at retrieving a good-chunk of the taxpayer money spent to fight human-caused fires on federal land.

"In a lot of instances we do we may get 80 percent, 75 percent, maybe 65 percent, but rarely do we drop below that and, in most cases, we're at 90 to 100 percent," he said. “We owe it to the public to get their money back."

Public records show that in the past three years, the feds have recovered about a $1.5 million from people who start fires. Most of those bills are being paid by people who ignited the fire accidentally and are subsequently shocked to learn the bill is theirs.

"I think they're a little bit surprised that their one small negligent act turned into something as big as it did," he said.

Most people who start fires won't face federal charges. The exception is a case of someone who is obscenely reckless or, of course, an arsonist.

That is not the case at the state or county level, however.

Two teens learned that lesson the hard way on Monday, when they allegedly accidentally started a fire with a firework. It cost more than $10,000 to extinguish the fire, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office says.

The county is now pressing criminal charges on against the teens a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office also has a staff that works to recover money for human-cause fires that burn state lands and cost Utah taxpayers. On average, they recover about $1 million per year.

The state will also charge those who ignite the fires with infractions or misdemeanor criminal charges for the fires burn state lands, but will defer on most of that to county prosecutors, the AG’s office says.

Court records show the majority of what is prosecuted are folks accused of starting relatively small fires, say in a yard or field, and prompting local firefighters to have to extinguish it. In those cases, people often are only dinged a couple hundred dollars and the case is dismissed in a plea deal.

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