Prosecutors drop reckless burning charge against Utah man who started the Brian Head Fire

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) Robert Lyman, the man accused of starting the 2017 Brian Head Fire, was bound over for trial and pleaded not guilty to charges of reckless burning and burning during a closed fire season before Judge James Brady in 4th District Court in Provo, Utah, July 30, 2019. Prosecutors have now dropped the first count.

Prosecutors have spent the past 2 1/2 years pursuing charges alleging that a Utah man was reckless when he set a fire that burned out of control and torched 71,000 acres in Brian Head.

But this week, Cedar City Attorney Chad Dotson asked a judge to drop the reckless burning charge he lodged against Robert Lyman. Why?

For insurance purposes.

Dotson said Friday that if Lyman were found criminally liable for starting the June 2017 fire that burned 13 homes and forced about 1,500 people to evacuate, it could affect whether his insurance policy would pay for the damages.

Dotson said he only recently became aware of the complications with insurance payouts — and he moved to dismiss the charge just a few weeks away from a trial that was supposed to start on March 10.

If they had moved forward to trial on the class A misdemeanor charge, Dotson said, it would “fly in the face of everything we’re trying to do” in helping those people whose properties burned.

But Lyman’s not quite off the hook. Prosecutors have also charged him with burning during closed fire season, a class B misdemeanor — and Dotson said they still are planning to go to trial on that charge.

“I think there needs to be some accountability,” he said. If convicted of a class B misdemeanor, Lyman could face a fine and up to six months in jail.

Lyman's attorney, Andrew Deiss, was not immediately available for comment on Friday.

Lyman started the 2017 fire after he set a lighter to a wood pile. He had two buckets of water nearby, according to preliminary hearing testimony, 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, which burned through brush and beetle-killed timber during the hot, dry summer days more than two years ago. It took a month to extinguish and cost about $34 million to fight.

Deiss argued at Lyman’s preliminary hearing 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.