- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) - Forestry officials say a potential multi-million dollar claim against a Douglas County resident believed to have accidentally started the Stouts Creek fire is still under consideration. While no one expects to collect anything close to the cost of the fire - currently estimated at more than $36 million - the state will pursue damages in cases involving negligence or criminal conduct.

Kyle Reed, a fire prevention specialist for the Douglas Forest Protective Association, says fire officials were able to determine the suspected fire starter, who they have declined to identify, was using a lawnmower in violation of fire season equipment restrictions when the fire began July 30.

“The cutoff time (for using the mower) was 1 a.m. and the fire started at 1 p.m.,” Reed says.

The fire, burning south of the community of Milo off the Tiller Trail Highway, has consumed more than 26,000 acres and, along with several other wildlands fires in the region, sent clouds of smoke billowing into the Rogue Valley.

Reed says any fire costs billed will ultimately be decided by the Oregon Department of Forestry’s fire cost recovery office.

“Our investigation has been finalized and turned over (to the state),” he says.

ODF spokesman Brian Ballou says billing responsible parties for fire-suppression costs is fairly routine for forestry officials, who are required by law to recover firefighting costs where possible.

Ballou says that human-caused wildfires fall into one of three categories: malicious, willful or negligent.

“Of those three, the most common is negligence,” he says. “(Those fires) are usually caused by somebody doing something that is prohibited at the time.”

Intentionally set wildfires are more rare but not unheard of in the state. Sadie Renee Johnson of Warm Springs was sentenced in September 2014 to 18 months in prison and damages of $7.9 million in fire suppression costs after she pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of setting fire to brush and timber on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in July 2013. The resulting blaze, known as the Sunnyside Turnoff fire, ended up consuming more than 51,000 acres before firefighters managed to contain it nine days later.

Ballou says that type of scenario is the exception, not the rule, in Southern Oregon.

“Most if not all of the large fires down here in which the state sought fire-cost recovery were caused by negligence,” he says.

Ballou says the open burning of waste remains one of the most common causes of negligently started wildfires in the area, along with the use of lawnmowers and chainsaws during restricted time periods.

“Even when we’re getting toward the end of firefighting season, people do get billed for firefighting costs because of their open burns (starting wildfires),” he says.

State records show the amount collected depends largely on the responsible party’s ability to pay and the negotiating efforts of state regulators. In the case of the Milepost 66 fire, which burned about 70 acres in the Columbia Gorge in fall 2012, forestry officials were able to negotiate a settlement of $155,000 from a railroad company whose train was found to have put off sparks that started the blaze. In many smaller cases, fire starters have settled for less than $5,000.

“We’ve already been paid for one of our larger fires (last year),” Reed says.

For the Stouts fire, the mixed ownership of the land within the fire’s boundaries could make assessing the costs owed to the state somewhat challenging.

Reed says slightly under half of the fire was burning on state lands under ODF supervision, while the remainder burned was administered by the U.S. Forest Service. “FEMA money has also been allocated,” he says, referring to a supplementary funding package authorized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover up to 75 percent of the firefighting costs on non-federal lands.

Ballou says that if a person who accidentally starts a fire had taken basic preventive measures before it began, they’ll have a good chance of avoiding the bill for firefighting costs - though they may still receive a lesser citation for violating fire season restrictions.

“As long as the person makes a reasonable effort not only to prevent a fire, but if they do start a fire, make some effort to put the fire out, they’ll have a better chance,” he says.

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Information from: Mail Tribune, https://www.mailtribune.com/

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