Aug 24, 2017

Landowner who accidentally started 2016 Whit Fire could face big bill

The Bureau of Land Management says a spark from a citizen’s metal grinder started last year’s Whit Fire west of Cody — and says that person could potentially be held responsible for the millions of dollars that it cost to suppress it.

Sarah Beckwith, a regional spokeswoman for the BLM, said generally that the agency is “compelled to seek cost recovery for the suppression and rehabilitation of a fire area if a responsible party is identified.”

“At this time, BLM Wyoming has not filed any charges, but the Whit Fire case remains open,” Beckwith added. “There are many ways the BLM can move forward with human-caused fires and seek cost restitution — administratively, civilly or criminally.”
A helicopter douses the Whit Fire with water in August 2016. Cody News Co. file photo by Toby Bonner

The BLM is still working to total up the cost of fighting the Whit Fire, as there were multiple agencies involved, she said. The BLM alone incurred roughly $1.4 million worth of costs, Beckwith said.

The blaze started on Aug. 2, 2016, on Whit Creek Road, south of the North Fork Highway in the Wapiti area. Another property owner’s home was destroyed and the fire went on to threaten a number of other homes on both the North and South forks of the Shoshone River while burning through 12,387 acres. More than 700 people worked the fire at its peak, along with many pieces of equipment ranging from trucks and helicopters to water-scooping planes. At one point, hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes on the South Fork.

A couple days after the Whit Fire began, BLM Cody Field Office Manager Delissa Minnick said at a public meeting that, “It appears to have been human-caused, with no malicious intent — an accident.”

But BLM officials were generally mum on the cause in the following months. In December, the bureau told the Tribune the cause remained under official investigation.

Last week, the Tribune inquired again and Beckwith said, “The Whit Fire was caused by a private landowner using a metal grinder which threw a spark.”

“Further details are not being released at this time because the case is still pending,” she said.
Beckwith said generally that the BLM “is compelled by policy to investigate human-caused fires because we want to have a robust fire prevention program and we can't prevent fires if we don't know what is causing them.”

 "At this time, BLM Wyoming has not filed any charges, but the Whit Fire case remains open," said Sarah Beckwith, a BLM spokesperson.
She later added that, “on each case we work closely with the Office of the Solicitor who legally advises the BLM on federal policy and other laws to ensure that when cost restitution is sought, the intricacies of each case are analyzed.”

Each case, Beckwith said, is worked carefully to “ensure we are meeting our duties to the American people.”

Meanwhile, Shoshone National Forest officials announced on Aug. 10 that an investigation by U.S. Forest Service law enforcement determined last month's June Fire was caused by a lightning strike that had occurred some time earlier. Such events are known as holdover fires, because they remain dormant for a significant period of time.

The June Fire was spotted and reported June 18 on the North Fork of the Shoshone River; it burned 1,618 acres.

“While the June Fire continues to put up small amounts of smoke from time to time, local crews have begun rehabilitation assessments and restoration work, ” Shoshone officials said in the Aug. 10 release.

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