SALT LAKE CITY - The Justice Department and the Utah Attorney General on Tuesday sued the Boy Scouts of America for nearly $14 million to recover the costs of the 2002 East Fork Fire which began at a Boy Scout camp in the Uinta Mountains.
U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner said the complaint seeks redress for federal taxpayers to the tune of $13.3 million for the costs of fighting the fire and reclamation of the charred land.
The state attorney general's office is asking for more than $606,000 to cover the state's firefighting expenses.
"These lawsuits are the result of failed negotiations," Warner said in a statement. "The United States and the state of Utah have made every attempt to resolve this matter through negotiation over a significant period of time."
Utah law requires the people who start fires to pay for the cost of fighting them. Michael Johnson, the assistant attorney general handling the state case, said the lawsuit was "simply the last resort" in defending taxpayers against getting stuck with the bill.
The June 28, 2002, fire started inside or near the East Fork of the Bear River Boy Scout Camp, about 35 miles south of Evanston, Wyo. The fire blackened 14,200 acres of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest and caused an estimated $150,000 in damage within the Scout camp to 12 camping sites, a rifle range, climbing towers, some latrines and several thousand feet of water lines.
Flames forced evacuation of the Scout camp, nearby campgrounds and summer homes, and prompted officials to close most of the north slope of the Uinta Mountains to the public.
The Boy Scouts have not admitted responsibility for the fire. Rob Wallace, a BSA attorney, said Tuesday questions remain about how the fire started.
Wallace has said it was possible people using all-terrain vehicles were responsible.
The U.S. Attorney's office, however, says the Forest Service reported no ATVs were in the area at the time the fire started.
Wallace said he last talked with state attorneys about six months ago and with federal representatives about a month ago. No one has discussed settlement offers or counteroffers, he said, though he was informed that a legal complaint likely would be filed by the end of June.
"As far as I know there haven't been negotiations as I understand the term," Wallace said. "There were some discussions about who may be responsible for the fire."
According to the court documents, fire restrictions were in place and had been made public in the week before the fire started, and that Boy Scout employees at the East Fork of the Bear Scout Reservation summer camp had been made aware of the campfire ban.
The lawsuits claim the Boy Scouts, who were there to earn wilderness survival merit badges, didn't comply with its own rules on "two-deep" adult supervision of overnight campouts. Instead, about 20 boys aged 11 to 14 were left without any adult supervision for the night outside an approved campground.
The documents state five scouts from Boy Scout Troop 149, sponsored by the Peoa Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, built fires on a thick layer of dead and decaying evergreen duff and that neither adequate water nor firefighting tools were available to put out the fire.
Two 15-year-old counselors or counselors-in-training observed the younger boys set the fires, but left them alone for the night, the complaint says.
A subsequent investigation determined the fire smoldered after the scouts left the area and grew into the East Fork Fire, which burned more than 14,000 acres of federal, state and private lands, the documents state.
The lawsuits name an adult, John White, and give the initials of the two 15-year-olds. Because the three had an employee-employer relationship with the Boy Scouts' Great Salt Lake Council, the council is liable for all negligence and damages, the complaints state.