USA — The U.S. Forest Service wants to collect $6.3 million from a 77-year-old man the agency blames for causing a 2012 forest fire that threatened to burn into the town of Jackson.
The Forest Service alleges James G. Anderson Jr. sparked the wildfire on Sept. 8, 2012, by burning twigs and paper in a rusted-out barrel at his son’s home and allowing the flames to get out of control.
The Forest Service sent Anderson a bill in November for the firefighting costs. The amount was due to the agency’s Albuquerque, N.M., service center on Dec. 13, according to a copy of the bill obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act.
No criminal charges have been filed while the civil matter remains unresolved, said John Powell, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Wyoming.
The Horsethief Canyon Fire burned 5 square miles of Bridger-Teton National Forest. At the height of the fire, officials urged some residents of nearby Jackson to be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice. The firefighters succeeded in halting the flames a couple miles outside town.
Firefighting costs for several agencies totaled about $9 million. Anderson’s share, according to a Nov. 13 certified letter the Forest Service sent him, includes about $3.8 million incurred by the Forest Service and some $2 million by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
He also owes about $64,000 to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, $154,000 to the National Park Service and $252,000 to the state of Wyoming and Teton County.
A phone number listed for Anderson didn’t work. His attorney, Richard Mulligan, declined comment and Anderson’s son, James Anderson III, did not return a phone message Tuesday. Mary Cernicek, a spokeswoman for Bridger-Teton National Forest, declined to comment.
Lightning causes the vast majority of wildfires in Wyoming. Relatively few are human-caused.
The amount authorities are seeking from Anderson is on the high end of firefighting costs that agencies have attempted to recoup from individuals in Wyoming, State Forester Bill Crapser said.
“When the attempts have been made, it’s fairly successful,” Crapser said. “The problem is, when you’re talking about a $6 million or $9 million fire cost, you’re probably going to end up with whatever the insurance policy is on it.”
According to a Forest Service report, Anderson told investigators he had burned twigs, shrub branches and papers in the barrel at his son’s home at 6 a.m. Later, after watching football and getting a sandwich, he said he saw smoke outside through a garage window. He called 911, according to the investigation report obtained by AP through a separate FOIA request.
The wildfire began when burning material got out of the barrel’s rusted-out bottom and flames spread across the property, investigators determined.
Firefighters arrived at the home around 2:45 p.m. to find the fire burning toward the national forest land beyond the home, the investigation report said.