Charges ‘lack factual foundation,’ says attorney for man accused of starting the Brian Head Fire

Tiffany Franssen | The Salt Lake Tribune Brian Head fire.

Cedar City • During an initial court appearance of a Taylorsville man charged with accidentally starting the 71,000-acre Brian Head Fire — which destroyed 13 residences and cost about $34 million to fight — the man’s attorney said “there are charges in this case that we believe lack factual foundation.”

Robert Ray Lyman, 61, was charged last month in 5th District Court with one count of reckless burning, a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. He also is charged with one count of class B misdemeanor failing to notify authorities or failing to obtain a permit before burning, which carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

On Tuesday, Lyman’s attorney, Andrew Deiss, asked Judge Keith Barnes to set a preliminary hearing, which was scheduled for Oct. 11. At that time, prosecutors must present enough evidence to show there is probable cause for the case to advance to trial.

After Tuesday’s brief court appearance, Deiss told reporters: “Like all of us, Bob Lyman is distraught about the damage the fire caused. And, like all of us, he‘s grateful to the men and women, the first responders, who had to fight the fire, and those who had to deal with the aftermath.”

Authorities have said the fire — which forced about 1,500 people to evacuate across Iron and Garfield counties — was sparked accidentally  June 17 by a man torching weeds at a Brian Head cabin owned by Lyman.

“There are lots of rumors out there spinning around,” Deiss said. ”A lot of them are not true.” 

Lyman declined to answer questions from news reporters.

Lyman’s cabin, according to Iron County property records, is located next to State Route 143, slightly north and downhill from the resort town. A photograph of the cabin figures prominently on a Facebook page for Lyman, who was a longtime West High School head basketball coach and Weber State University assistant basketball coach. The Salt Lake Tribune named him coach of the year in 2009, when he led West High to the 4A championship.

The fire burned for nearly a month through brush and beetle-killed timber in hot, dry conditions. It initially raced south and briefly threatened to torch dozens of cabins and businesses in Brian Head, a popular getaway for Las Vegas residents. Then the blaze turned northeast, where it destroyed cabins near the fishing destination of Panguitch Lake.

According to 911 calls released last month, the fire started as a weed-burning project.

“We’re trying to fight this, but it’s getting out of control. ... We need help!” a man at the cabin told an emergency dispatcher at about noon  June 17. “It’s like 50 feet by 50 feet. It’s big — we need help!”

Deiss said Lyman came forward and cooperated with the investigation from the beginning. 

“While we appreciate the prosecutor‘s efforts and the investigator’s efforts to get to the bottom of this, there are charges in this case that we believe lack factual foundation, and we think will be exposed in the fullness of time,” Diess told reporters. He did not comment on whether Lyman’s cabin was damaged by the wildfire.

Utah is expected to share the cost of the blaze — among the highest for a Utah wildfire — with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has said. The government also often tries to recoup some costs from the person convicted of starting wildfires and from that person’s insurance policy. For example, settlements with two men responsible for the 2012 Saratoga Springs Dump Fire — which cost more than $3.5 million to fight — totaled $435,000.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune A sign thanking fire fighters in Parowan near the road block to the road to Brian Head, Thursday, June 22, 2017.