Utah’s Brian Head Fire started while a cabin owner was doing yard work to protect his home from a potential wildfire, says defense attorney

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Smoke rises from the wildfire burning north of the southern Utah ski town of Brian Head Tuesday, June 20, 2017. The Brian Head Fire forced the evacuation of about 750 residents and visitors on Saturday.

The irony isn’t lost on Andy Deiss.

A wildfire that burned more than 71,000 acres last June started at a Brian Head property where Robert Ray Lyman, 61, was trying to create space around his cabin, to protect it from potential wildfire, according to Deiss, who is Lyman’s defense attorney.

“This whole business arose, ironically, because he was making or creating a fire break,” Deiss said during a Thursday interview.

A fire break is a barrier of open space that works as an obstacle and protects homes from spreading wildfires.

Lyman was accused of starting the June 17 fire and charged in 5th District Court with reckless burning, a class A misdemeanor; and failing to notify authorities or failing to obtain a permit before burning, a class B misdemeanor.

A three-day jury trial is set to begin Aug. 29 in Cedar City.

Several rumors about the fire’s origin swirled around social media as the flames torched homes and caused mass evacuations.

One of those rumors was that the fire was started by a weed torch, which according to Deiss, is false.

“There was no weed torch,” Deiss said.

Jason Curry, a spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands confirmed Thursday that investigators don’t think that a weed torch was used.

“I wouldn’t dispute that,” Curry said.

That report, that a weed torch had been used, was tweeted by Utah governor Gary Herbert on June 20.

Deiss declined to go into specifics about how the flames were actually sparked.

“We want a fair trial in this matter so I’m not going to talk about significant facts,” he said.

But he did detail the circumstances of “where the fire began: in an effort to create a fire break,” he said.

A year before the Brian Head fire started, Lyman hired people to cut down trees and dead wood around the cabin to protect the home and the area from a potential wildfire, according to Deiss.

On June 17, Lyman was clearing left-over debris and putting it into a pile, Deiss said, and was nearly done when the fire started.

“When the fire started, he did his best to fight it, using water, and wasn’t able to stop it,” Deiss said. “So he called 911. He cooperated with authorities after that.”

The state Department of Public Safety (DPS) in July released 911 calls from that afternoon.

“We’re trying to fight this, but it’s getting out of control. ... We need help!” a man, reportedly Lyman, told an emergency dispatcher just after noon. “It’s like 50 feet by 50 feet. It’s big — we need help!”

Eight minutes earlier, according to timestamps released by DPS, dispatch received a call from a Brian Head business owner, who was reporting a “massive” fire.

“There is a cabin, and the cabin owner has a fire going. He’s burning off shrub around his cabin,” the caller says. “The fire is massive.”

The fire torched 13 homes and forced about 1,500 people to evacuate across Iron and Garfield counties and cost about $34 million to fight.

“He is, of course, mortified about what happened,” Deiss said of Lyman.

Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo Bob Lyman, former West High School basketball coach, is accused of starting a massive wildfire in Brian Head in June 2017. Lyman is shown here celebrating with his team after their 4A championship win in 2009.

Burning through brush and beetle-killed timber in hot, dry conditions, the blaze initially raced south and briefly threatened dozens of cabins and businesses in Brian Head. Then the wind pushed the fire northeast, where it burned cabins near Panguitch Lake.

“Obviously the impact on [Lyman’s] life is far less important than the impact on others’ lives,” Deiss said on Thursday. “That said, there have been some unfortunate results.”

For instance, Lyman — a longtime coach of the West High School boy’s basketball coach and an assistant basketball coach for Weber State University’s men’s team — had wanted to voluntarily assist the West High School’s girl’s basketball team for the upcoming season. (The Tribune named him coach of the year in 2009, when he led West High to the 4A championship.)

But before the season started last fall, Lyman had been rejected as a volunteer candidate, according to one of West’s athletic director’s, Robbie Stubbs.

After Lyman was charged in connection with the wildfire, he couldn’t pass the required background check because of the pending litigation, according to West’s other athletic director, Kristy Proesch.