SALT LAKE CITY — A Summit County rancher is suing the U.S. Forest Service over a prescribed 1,000-acre burn that jumped out of control, burning nearly 8,000 acres near the Alpine Scenic Loop in American Fork Canyon.
The 2003 wildfire was found to be the fault of the agency after a review by an independent 12-member team concluded inadequate preparation and planning went into the decision to burn an additional 400 acres.
At the time, Dennis Earl had leases to 2,265 acres of land, 85 percent of which was burned in the fire, along with fencing and other improvements he had put in for his cattle.
The following spring, Earl submitted a claim to the Forest Service for damages to his operation along the shores of Deer Creek Reservoir, and earlier this year, the Forest Service denied the claim.
"It took them nine years," said Stephen Hill, the attorney representing Earl. "Good grief. Government should not treat people this way."
The suit claims the agency rejected the claim on the basis that the fire did not result from the negligence or wrongful conduct of a government employee.
Hill said that claim is ironic in the face of the agency's own report concluding that there was an inadequate burn plan, inadequate pre-burn weather monitoring and analysis, and deviations from Forest Service policy.
The Forest Service, according to the suit, cited those factors as contributors and ultimately concluded that the primary cause of the fire escaping was the agency decision to ignite an additional 400 acres outside the planned burn unit.
Criticism over the fire was harsh from local residents who complained the agency should not have contemplated a prescribed burn in the wake of a five-year drought, didn't properly consider wind impacts, and failed to institute adequate lines to corral the blaze.
The fire cost $3 million to extinguish and burned for a week before it was put out.
Hill said Earl was not compensated for his losses, which included the use of the property, business income and profits from the cattle business and "substantial" damages caused by the fire.
Earl is seeking judgment against the Forest Service for special damages not less than $100,000 and for general damages not less than $200,000, as well as post-judgment interest.