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Start a fire, you could pay big



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SALT LAKE CITY — Starting a wildfire can get you in big trouble, even if you haven't actually violated a fire restriction.

The Bureau of Land Management has obtained extra funding to put more boots on the ground to educate people about fire hazards — like this dry grass — and to patrol for things like illegal fireworks.

Start a fire and pay the piper: that's pretty much what the governor has been warning everyone about.

"If they start a fire, they'll be liable," Gov. Gary Herbert said Monday."If you start a fire, you're going to get big bills. It's going to be a significant amount of money."

The point is, if you're negligent, you could be forced to pay the costs of fighting the fire as well as any damages.


If you start a fire, you're going to get big bills. It's going to be a significant amount of money.

–Gary Herbert


"They need to know as citizens that we, the BLM, will go in and try to find who started the fire and hold them accountable," said Juan Palma, state director of the BLM. "And that ‘hold them accountable' can cost them a lot of money."

And if the feds don't get you, maybe the state will.

"The state absolutely pursues cases where appropriate," said Mike Johnson, with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. "All wildfires in the state are investigated."

It's not rare for people to pay the consequences of fires they start, but not especially common either, considering how many wildfires Utah sees. State officials settle a couple of cases a year, and on the federal level, in recent years the number has ranged from a low of three cases a year to seven in Utah.

"I wouldn't say we get all of them, but we try very hard every single time," Palma said.


They need to know as citizens that we, the BLM, will go in and try to find who started the fire and hold them accountable.

–Juan Palma


Recent cases have included Union Pacific paying $1.75 million for starting the Railroad Fire in 1999, and the Boy Scouts paying $6.5 million for the 2002 East Fork Fire. and federal authorities are suing nine individuals for $1.7 million for a campfire that went out of control in 2006.

Even in areas where campfires, fireworks or target shooting are legal, you can get in trouble.

"Even if there's no restriction on that, they need to use ordinary precautions to try to avoid the risk of fire," Johnson said. "And if they don't, they can be held liable even if there wasn't some sort of a ban or restriction imposed."

Because of the extreme conditions, the BLM received so- called "severity funding" from Washington to beef up fire prevention and enforcement. They got $179,000 dollars extra for June, and they're asking for at least that much in July.

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John Hollenhorst

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