Plea spares Utah target shooters jail for wildfire
Despite Governor's tough words, fire starters get off easy
By Paul Foy
The Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY — During the worst of the fire season last summer, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert vowed to hold accountable anybody who foolishly ignited a wildfire, saying "if you start a fire, you're going to be liable to pay for the fire."
Herbert specifically mentioned a fire that devastated a large area southeast of Salt Lake City, forcing hundreds of people to flee and leaving homes with smoke damage.
Yet the two target shooters who started the fire will spend no time in jail and will pay only $10,000 of the more than $2 million it cost to fight the fire.
On Monday, Jeffery Conant, 42, of Utah and Kenneth Nielsen, 38, of Washington state pleaded no contest to using an exploding target.
In a plea deal, Utah County prosecutors dropped one of two charges, didn't insist on jail time and required the men to pay $10,000. Prosecutors haven't decided whether to give the money to the state, the nearby town of Saratoga Springs or the Utah County Sheriff's Office.
The prosecutors dropped a second charge of reckless burning.
"I don't know anyone who wouldn't take that deal," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Tuesday. "Given the size and magnitude of the wildfire, it seems like quite a deal."
The Dump Fire in June forced 600 families to flee Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain. Three months later, a 100-year rain storm poured down a barren mountainside into one subdivision of Saratoga Springs, carrying a mudslide that damaged nearly two dozen homes.
When target shooters fire off guns in dry brush, the bullets can ricochet off rocks, sending sparks flying.
In all, more than $50 million was spent in 2012 putting out Utah's roughly 1,500 wildfires. Dozens were caused by targeting shooting, officials said Tuesday.
Herbert's state forester followed up to the Dump Fire by banning target shooting in four areas of Utah, including the west side of Utah Lake.
State and municipal officials said they weren't consulted or even aware of the plea deal. Some were hesitant to second-guess the judge or prosecutors.
"We were disappointed in the event in the first place," Saratoga Springs City Manager Mark Christensen said Tuesday.
Fourth District Judge Samuel D. McVey, who accepted the plea deal and suspended a fine, declined comment Tuesday, deferring to Utah County attorneys, who defended the leniency shown the men by saying they immediately took responsibility for the fire.
"They did exactly what we wanted them to do," said Tim Taylor, Utah County's chief deputy attorney. "They attempted to put out the fire, called 911 and stuck around, doing everything they could to help put out this fire."
Authorities believe it was a ricocheting bullet, not the exploding target, the set the fire ablaze, but a county ordinance bans the use of any exploding targets, even computer screens, said Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman.
Herbert was unavailable in Washington, D.C., and his staff aides declined comment.
"Certainly $10,000 is a small amount in restitution when it cost $2.1 million to fight the fire," said state forestry spokesman Jason Curry, who was asked to sign a criminal affidavit saying Conant and Nielson "recklessly detonated an explosive target" in dry weeds. "The bottom line is it came out of the pockets of taxpayers."
John Allan, the target shooters' defense lawyer, didn't return a call Tuesday.
The West has experienced its worst fire seasons in recent years. Penalties for starting a fire often vary.
Last month, a California judge sentenced an arsonist to death for a wildfire that ripped through the hills east of Los Angeles for nine days in 2003. Five residents died of heart attacks during the wildfire.
In Arizona last August, two cousins whose campfire started the largest wildfire in state history were jailed for a weekend and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service. The Wallow Fire burned about 840 square miles of land, spilling into part of New Mexico in 2011.