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Utah rancher wants compensation for 'prescribed' burn

Published July 15, 2013 3:25 pm

Summit County • Lawsuit claims Forest Service negligence allowed his grazing allotment to burn.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A Summit County rancher is accusing the U.S. Forest Service of negligence in losing control of a 2003 "prescribed" burn that torched his private grazing allotment, setting him back $200,000.

While the agency found that the then-Uintah National Forest mishandled the Cascade Springs II burn, the federal government this year decided not to honor Dennis Earl's claim for damages, according to a suit filed in federal court Friday.

The burn targeted 600 acres for treatment on the west side of Deer Creek Reservoir, but Forest Service personnel ignited some ground outside of this zone on the afternoon of Sept. 23, 2003, according to the suit. Winds kicked up, igniting spot fires beyond the containment line and by 5 p.m. the blaze was declared an escaped wildfire. About 250 firefighters spent the next seven days reining in the fire that eventually burned 7,828 acres and filled the skies above the Salt Lake Valley with smoke.

The Forest Service's regional office in Ogden had yet to review the lawsuit Monday and declined to comment.

The blaze torched about 85 percent of the 2,265 acres Earl leased west of Deer Creek Reservoir from Property Reserve Inc. The rancher submitted his claim in March 2004, after the Forest Service issued a report identifying numerous failures in the planning and implementation of the burn.

It took nine years for its parent agency, the Department of Agriculture, to formally deny the claim, saying the fire was not the result of "negligence or wrongful conduct" on the part of the federal government.

The words negligence and wrongful don't appear in the Forest Service's October 2003 review of the mishap. But a team led by Ronnie Raum, then-supervisor of Mark Twain National Forest, found much to criticize in the Uinta National Forest's role.

The burn was marred by inadequate planning, inadequate pre-burn weather monitoring, deviations from agency policy and unqualified staff planning and directing the burn, according to the review. Reviewers were most troubled by the decision to burn an additional 400 acres outside the 600-acre treatment area, which they fingered as the wildfire's primary cause.

"This area was burned without an analysis of holding and contingency force needs. The additional acreage, greater fire perimeter, and its proximity to a steep uphill slope required additional resources. Pre-burn planning for those resources had not occurred," the report concluded.

bmaffly@sltrib.com