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Two men convicted in Stouts Creek fire case

Recent hot days remind us that fire season looms, so we got to wondering about the "person mowing" who started the Stouts Creek fire last summer. Were they named? Were they prosecuted? Were they fined for starting the fire? And will there be more effort to educate people about just how fast a mower or power tool can spark an immense conflagration?

— A mower

The cause of the Stouts Creek fire, which ignited at about 1 p.m. July 30, was mowing during hours prohibited by fire restrictions, according to the Incident Information System.

The Oregon Department of Forestry can't reveal much information about the case because potential legal claims are still pending, said Jeff Bonebrake, investigation and cost-recovery coordinator with the state agency.

However, Douglas County court records show Stouts Creek Road resident Dominic J. Decarlo pleaded no contest to a charge of unlawful use of fire in August 2015 in relation to the fire. With a no contest plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but concedes prosecutors could likely prove the case at trial. A no contest plea has the same legal repercussions as a guilty plea.

Unlawful use of fire is a violation, similar to a speeding ticket. Decarlo's fine was $110, court records show.

Also in the case, Arizona resident Cloyd A. Deardorff pleaded no contest to unlawful use of fire and unlawful entry into a restricted forestland area in relation to the Stouts Creek fire case. Unlawful entry into a restricted forestland area is also a violation. He was fined $110 for each violation, court records show.

Although the fines in the criminal cases were relatively small, Bonebrake said civil cases against people who start wildfires due to willful, malicious or negligent conduct can be very costly.

The Stouts Creek fire cost about $39 million to fight. ODF is required by law to try and recover firefighting costs, he said.

"Many times we'll bill for the actual amount we spend on a fire, depending on the person's assets and ability to pay," he said.

Most fires are small, and people who are found liable are able to pay costs with their liquid assets and insurance, Bonebrake said.

"We don't end up with a lot of cases with extremely large fires," he said.

Although ODF can place a lien on property, it rarely does so because most people don't have enough equity in their homes to cover ODF's costs of pursuing a lien, he said.

Railroad companies, power companies and other entities with deeper pockets than individuals are sometimes found at fault and are required to cover firefighting costs, Bonebrake said.

"Everyone needs to be vigilant about preventing a fire start. Many times, they will say it was accidental, but if they did something they shouldn't have done, there's a likelihood they'll end up paying for the fire," he said.

As for education, ODF officials said they are taking steps to educate the public about fire-season restrictions, including posting additional signs and trying to coordinate when fire season restrictions go into effect so all of Southern Oregon is covered by the same restrictions at the same time.

For more information about fire season restrictions and closures, see www.oregon.gov.

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