John Lightburn. Courtesy of the Montana Department of Corrections.
A 55-year-old Bridger man has been arrested and charged for acting negligently — putting people’s lives and property in danger — while attempting to fix a dirtbike near the Robertson Draw area and setting off a wildfire that has cost nearly $6 million.
The Robertson Draw fire has burned almost 30,000 acres and consumed more than 20 structures to date. As of Thursday, the fire was 53 percent contained.
John Lightburn’s motorcycle mishap is an example of an increasing trend of humans being responsible for starting wildfires. A 2017 study looking at two decades of wildfires in the United States found human activity accounts for 84 percent of wildfires, adding an average of 40,000 fires per year and tripling the length of fire season.
The Carbon County Sheriff’s office announced the two felony and misdemeanor charges against Lightburn Wednesday. His initial appearance is scheduled for 10 a.m., July 7.
Lightburn was riding his dirt bike on a trail closed to motor vehicles around 10 a.m. on June 13 when he said the bike flooded, according to charging documents filed on Wednesday by Carbon County Prosecutor Alex Nixon. While trying to repair the motorcycle, Lightburn spilled gasoline, and he told a Forest Service law enforcement officer that there was “gas all over.” He then checked the spark plug and got a spark, which caused the fire, court documents said.
According to the documents, when the investigator found the motorbike, it showed signs of being burned. Near the bike were a burned helmet and an unburned patch of grass in the general outline of the motorcycle. Lightburn made no claims of trying to extinguish the fire, and there was no evidence found that he attempted to stanch the blaze, according to the documents.
“When fuels get dry, fires can start very easily,” said Deana Harms, a spokesperson for the Northern Rockies Type 2 Incident Management Team, which is handling the Robertson Draw Fire. “Any little spark can cause a fire, and when it’s hot, dry and windy, it helps the fire get established and grow.”
Those were the exact conditions on June 13 where the fire started about 12 miles south of Red Lodge.
“The fire started in an area covered in dried, cured grasses and sage. The high temperature, dry conditions, and prevailing winds caused the fire to grow,” the charging documents read.
Harms said that vehicles and equipment can start fires even without a gasoline spill or spark from a spark plug.
“[The vehicles] are so hot that if people drive or park in dry vegetation, the whole exhaust system can ignite the grass or brush underneath,” Harms said.
Fueled in part by persistent drought, more than 4 million acres of Montana forest land will be at an elevated risk for wildfires this summer. Evidence is already mounting that wildfires could dominate much of the West in the coming months, according to fire experts.
Around 25 miles east of where Lightburn attempted to fix his motorcycle, another fire is burning. However, the cause of the Crooked Creek Fire, which has burned 5,400 acres and is 25 percent contained, remains unknown. A third fire, the Deep Creek Canyon fire, is 90 percent contained as of Wednesday after burning nearly 5,000 acres in the hills between Townsend and White Sulphur Springs.
Lightburn was being held in the Gallatin County Detention Center on a $7,500 bond as of Wednesday. Records indicate that he was on probation as part of a 5-year sentence for a 2017 theft conviction at the time of his arrest.
He is facing one count of felony and one count of misdemeanor negligent arson and one count of felony criminal mischief, according to the charging documents. All together, he could face around $100,000 in fines and 20 years in prison.
In addition to the criminal charges brought by Carbon County, Lightburn could face civil action from the federal government, which brings suits to collect damages and make the government whole against timber loss and suppression costs.
When investigating fires, things like intent and damage caused must be weighed, said Jay Fassett, assistant fire management officer for the Custer Gallatin National Forest.
“If it is something that was malicious or negligent, that is different than someone accidentally starting something,” he said.
In recent years, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana, Leif Johnson, said his department has not filed very many civil suits. He said it is not always worth the effort to go after someone without insurance or the means to pay back the damages. He also said the federal government does not want to jump in front of property owners and other affected parties to collect damages.
But Johnson said he expects more suits will be brought going forward.
“This summer is going to be a very dangerous fire season if the early indications are any sign … we are having more fires, and we have more people building and recreating in high fire areas in the summer,” he said. “If we can find a cause, and it is related to negligent or reckless behavior, we will bring an action against them to collect damages and costs.”
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