Forest Service officials are preparing a $4.5 million bill that will be sent to a Montana outfitter believed responsible for starting a fire Aug. 15 in the Gallatin National Forest that became part of the firestorm in Yellowstone National Park.
Two Idahoans also have been arraigned by a federal magistrate on charges they violated Forest Service regulations while working in an area where the other of Yellowstone's human-caused fires started July 22 just outside the park's west boundary. (Human cause has been ruled out in the six other Yellowstone fires.)The process of recovering damages from the massive summer fires is slow because of the number of government and private entities that helped in the firefighting effort, said Tim Aldredge, Gallatin National Forest administrative officer. "We're doing our darndest to get this stuff gathered up."
Aldredge said the cost of fighting the fire and the dollar value of resources lost is still being tallied, but agencies have settled on a round figure of $4.5 million for the "Hellroaring" fire that started in the Gallatin National Forest.
Attorneys from the Department of Agriculture have reviewed the circumstances and have started the ball rolling in an administrative process that begins with a bill for damages being sent to the party they believe is responsible, said Forest Service spokesman Tom King.
"Very often the person you send the bill to or their insurance company will remit," Aldredge said, adding that the Forest Service does not play judge and jury when it sends a bill
"This is an administrative type of procedure. There isn't any courtroom or anything like that," Aldredge said. "We do this very often. This just happens to be a larger incident than most we deal with. Much, much larger - and much more complex."
If the bill is refused, "Then it would be further reviewed by the U.S. attorney's office," King said.
Aldredge said the Hellroaring fire started close to a camp set by Montana-based Absaroka Outfitters, owned by Vern Smith.
Charges of violating Forest Service regulations were filed against Roy Momerak, Herbert D. Butler, Nathan Wright and Leland J. Owens. The U.S. attorney for Idaho, Maurice Ellsworth, filed the charges at the conclusion of a Forest Service investigation into the North Fork fire, which started west of Yellowstone and burned into the park, threatening the developed complex at Old Faithful.
Ellsworth is quick to point out the four men aren't charged with starting the fire. "They're charged with a petty offense of violating a code of federal regulations that prohibits throwing out lighted material (cigarettes) in the National Forest," he said, adding that the men are also charged with littering.
"I can indicate to you that these charges are a result of an investigation done by the Forest Service in connection with the North Fork fire, but that's about as much of a link as I can draw for you."
The four men were arraigned in Pocatello Thursday. A trial date has not been set.
Forest Service investigators said while the North Fork fire was still burning they believed the fire was caused by a woodcutter's cigarette.