Thursday, December 4, 2008

Person responsible for Day fire owes $101 million

Day fire, photo by Slothenstein

From the Ventura County Star:
With the flick of a match in 2006, Steven Butcher inadvertently started one of the largest wildfires in California history — the Day fire in Los Padres National Forest.

On Nov. 17, U.S. District Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank sentenced Butcher, a homeless and mentally ill man, to 45 months in prison and ordered the self-described nature lover to pay the $101.6 million it cost to fight the Day fire.

Day Fire, U.S. Forest Service photo

Some say the judgment was shocking given the punishments handed out to others convicted of starting even bigger fires, including one that killed more than a dozen people. The Day fire injured 18 people and destroyed 11 structures, but nobody was killed.

The $101.6 million has to be "one of the biggest monetary amounts ever levied against a person," said Mark Windsor, who represented Butcher during the sentencing portion of his trial.

Day Fire, photo by Firelookout

But authorities, while acknowledging they probably won't see much of that money, say they nonetheless have an obligation to try to recoup all the taxpayer money spent fighting wildfires, and to send the message that those who start fires will be held responsible.

"If the cost is $3 million, that's what we're going to bill the person for," said Joel Semple, a state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection official.

The Day fire started on Labor Day, Sept. 4, 2006, at Butcher's campsite in Piru Canyon. It took thousands of firefighters 39 days to contain the blaze. By that time, it had burned more than 162,700 acres, much of it in Los Padres National Forest.

It was the sixth-largest fire in California history when measured by acreage, and the thick columns of smoke could be seen from space.

In addition to the Day fire, Butcher was convicted by a federal jury of starting a much smaller wildfire, known as the Ellis fire, four years earlier. It burned 70 acres of Los Padres land.

Court documents show Butcher had a deep need to maintain an orderly camp at each of his many sites. Butcher would tidy the sites up by burning any garbage he did not carry out of the woods, to keep the forest as pristine as possible, records show.

(More, at the Ventura County Star)

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