Provo • Before Robert Lyman set his lighter to a wood pile that would end up burning out of control and torching 71,000 acres in Brian Head, he had tried to take some precautions.
He had two buckets of water nearby and a hose fed from a spring was at the ready. He had raked away debris and wet the ground beforehand — the things that officials say should be done before trying to ignite burn piles.
But it wasn’t enough.
Within five minutes, the flames had grown out of control and started what was dubbed the Brian Head Fire, a June 2017 blaze that torched 13 homes and forced about 1,500 people to evacuate across Iron and Garfield counties. It took a month to extinguish and cost about $34 million to fight.
But were Lyman’s actions that day reckless?
That’s the question at the heart of a preliminary hearing held Tuesday, where prosecutors elicited testimony from two fire investigators in an effort to show that Lyman committed a crime when he set the fire that burned through brush and beetle-killed timber during the hot, dry summer days two years ago.
Lyman is charged with reckless burning and burning during a closed fire season, both misdemeanor counts. If convicted of reckless burning, he could face a maximum penalty of up to a year behind bars.
His attorney, Andrew Deiss, argued that his client’s choices to bring water to the burn area and rake debris away showed that he was trying to mitigate the inherent dangers. Ironically, Lyman had been burning those debris piles to protect his home from wildfires, Deiss argued — he had been trying to make a “fire break,” a barrier of open space that works as an obstacle and protects homes from spreading wildfires.
That, in part worked, Lyman’s cabin didn’t burn in the massive blaze.
Weiss argued that in the aftermath of a fire that caused pain, fear and anger among the people who lived there, Lyman became someone to pin the blame on.
“Mr. Lyman is not a villain,” he argued as he asked a judge to toss the case. “He was a man trying to do the right thing and took multiple steps to accomplish that goal.”
But Deputy Iron County Attorney Shane Klenk argued Tuesday that Lyman’s precautionary measures proved that he was being reckless.
“Mr. Lyman was in fact aware of a risk,” he argued, “that the fire could spread up hill to brush and trees.”
Fourth District Judge James Brady ultimately found the case should move forward, and a jury should decide whether Lyman was, in fact, reckless.
Iron County Fire Warden Ryan Riddle testified during the Tuesday hearing that he rushed from Cedar City to Brian Head after he received report of a fire on June 17, 2017 and found 80 to 100 foot flames.
“We were doing everything we could to minimize any damages to structures or infrastructure,” Riddle testified, but noted that within the first few hours, a cabin had already burned.
The fire continued to burn for weeks, before officials declared it officially contained on July 15, 2017.
During this time, Bureau of Land Management fire investigator Dan Barnes was called to figure out how the blaze was started. He testified that he quickly came in contact with Lyman, who had called 911 and reported that his fire had gotten out of control.
He described Lyman as cooperative, saying the cabin owner was helpful in describing what he was burning and took responsibility for starting the fire. But he noted that while it wasn’t intentional, Lyman didn’t do enough to prevent the flames from getting out of control.
“The fact that the forest caught on fire would indicate those precautions were not even near appropriate,” he testified. “Those preparations were not adequate for what he was burning.”
After the judge ruled that there was enough evidence for Lyman to go to trial, he pleaded not guilty to the two charges.
After the hearing, his attorney said Tuesday was the first time the public was able to get a glimpse of what really happened that June day. He said rumors have been flying for the past two years about the fire — primarily that Lyman had been warned about burning debris piles before, and that he had used a weed torch to start the blaze. The latter rumor was even tweeted by Gov. Gary Herbert days after the fire had started, but Weiss said neither were true.
The fire, he said, was started with a lighter and some lighter fluid.
“The outcome is terrible,” he said, “but his mental state was he wanted to do the opposite of what he’s charged with.”
Lyman’s case is being heard in a Provo courtroom after a judge in Iron County found it was unlikely that he could receive a fair trial there.
His attorneys wrote in a motion that he would not get a fair trial because of “hatred” the rural community expressed in online comments and social media posts for the “outsider” who lived in Taylorsville. They further argued that the fire affected so many Iron County residents — it’s likely some would have to drive past the damage just to get to the courthouse to report for jury duty — that it would impossible for him to get a fair trial.
Prosecutors did not oppose the motion, and the case was moved to Utah’s second largest county.