Fire fines under scrutiny
January 18, 2013
Summit County officials are considering changing the process by which the county recovers the suppression costs of human-caused fires.
"The majority of our fires are human-caused," Public Works Director Kevin Callahan said during a Jan. 16 County Council work session. "They are not natural. We put a ban on campfires prior to July 4 last year. During the summer we had a lot of people in the Uintas and a number of them weren’t complying with that ban."
Callahan added that many people were also not complying with the fireworks restrictions the county imposed last year. Consequently, a brush fire was started on July 4 by a 13-year-old who was playing with fireworks near the Castle Rock I-80 off-ramp.
According to the police reports, Robert Lund pulled over his vehicle on a trip back from Wyoming to relieve himself. While he was out of sight, his 13-year-old son lit fireworks next to the car, which started a small brush fire. When Lund returned, he saw the fire, got into his vehicle, and was quickly backing out of the area until he was stopped by a Utah Highway Patrol trooper.
"There is a code that says that anyone who is responsible for starting a fire burning, or anything that requires a response, is responsible for 100 percent of the suppression costs, whether the fire was intentional or unintentional," Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer said.
Currently, if staff finds someone financially responsible for a fire, the county manager executes the decision. If the decision is appealed, it goes before the County Council.
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The fire consumed 2.5 acres and cost the county $3,000 to extinguish, but when the county attempted to recover the costs from Lund, he appealed and the County Council wrestled to decide whether Lund was financially responsible for his son’s actions.
According to the trooper’s account of the incident as stated in the police report, Lund was attempting to flee the fire when he was stopped.
During his appeal on Nov. 19, Lund maintained he was not fleeing the fire, but was going for help.
"The problem with it was that [staff] tried to pin the problem on the father and not the 13-year-old," Councilmember Claudia McMullin said. "After taking evidence, we determined the father really hadn’t done anything wrong. But I don’t think we had any problem with staff going for the money. It was just the wrong party. There was no legal basis to go after the dad."
Councilmember Roger Armstrong disagreed, saying he wasn’t sure that was the case.
"What troubled me about the process was that you only had the dad’s word," he said. "We didn’t have an arresting officer at his appeal hearing to talk about whether the father may have been liable if he had been fleeing the fire. We took the father’s word for it because there was no peace officer to say, ‘I was there and he was running in the other direction.’ That really surprised me."
Armstrong suggested that a citation for causing a wildfire go through the court system.
"And then if there’s a finding of guilt, it makes it easier for the county to impose a fine," he said. "But you still have to decide if the peace officers are going to be subpoenaed to show up. I think whoever happened to be there investigating the case should be there."
McMullin countered that the County Council had the police report and Lund’s testimony, from which they determined Lund had not been fleeing.
"So given that fact, there was no basis for finding him liable," she said.
Eventually, the county was able to negotiate a settlement with Lund by holding the teen responsible, but it brought into question the county’s fire-suppression recovery procedures.
"But we can change that process. We don’t have to do it that way," Summit County Attorney Dave Thomas said.
County Manager Bob Jasper added that he preferred a judge be responsible for convicting an individual for the responsibility of a fire.
"We have a really good judge," he said. "To me, this makes more sense than it coming to me and then be appealed to you. And then the council doesn’t play as much of a role in terms of appeal; they aren’t acting like a higher court."
The County Council continued the discussion to a later date when staff could provide them with alternatives to the current process.