What would be an appropriate punishment?

Hewlett Gulch Fire

Hewlett Gulch Fire burns in steep terrain. Photo: CBS

Colorado’s Hewlett Gulch Fire, subject of a previous PT post, has grown to 7,600 acres and is about 45% contained this evening. Several evacuation orders have been lifted and several other areas remain on evacuation standby, but so far there have been no injuries and no homes destroyed.

What would be a fair penalty for the 56-year-old camper who has admitted accidentally starting the fire when his small alcohol camp stove blew over? He tried briefly to stomp out the spreading flames before fleeing. There was no cell phone service available in the area.

Federal authorities have cited the man, James J. Weber, for “causing timber to burn without a permit,” according to the Denver Post. He faces up to $325 in fines and fees, and the federal government will seek restitution for its firefighting expenses, already more than $1.2 million.

What constitutes a just penalty or punishment in a case like this? $325 is a pittance compared to the size of the fire. But over $1 million in restitution? From an employee of Colorado State University’s health network? You can bankrupt him and force him to live the rest of his life in poverty, but he’ll never be able to pay that much. The fire was an accident, after all, and Weber did turn himself in. Should that mitigate the punishment?

What do you think? How would you penalize or punish Weber if it were your call?



Categories: Green, Law, Society

17 replies

  1. I for one am OK with the small fine for the careless camper. His true penalty, seems to me, is the ignominy of having done it. If the fine for such things were made large it would only deter investigations and admissions. It must be very difficult to determine causes in many cases because of the variety of possible causes. Cigarettes, lightning, spontaneous combustion (does that happen in the wild?), kids. I’m thinking it might be wise however to post substantial rewards for verified reports of people causing fires. Might even deter terrorists who, I’ve heard, have pondered doing this as part of their plots. Is this already being done? (My area is not prone to big fires, thank goodness.)

    • You made some good points here. I don’t know if there’s a reward in Colo. for reporting violators, but in the woods it would be pure luck for a passerby to actually see a fire start. In any case, as fire-conscious as we are, it’s second nature to report any fire (and people in the area) ASAP. I hadn’t heard about terrorists starting forest fires, but certainly it would occupy a lot of resources and attention while they moved on to more critical targets. It would also require more manpower and planning than exhibited in their recent attempts, all of which seem to be “lone wolf” efforts.

  2. This is a good question and I’m not sure exactly what the answer is but perhaps as well as a reasonable fine (ei-not bankruptcy inducing ) he could perform some community service hours and/or have his privilege to camp in the great outdoors suspended for a period of time….

    • Community service. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a great idea. It’s a good sentence for most offenders, I think, to have them give something back to the community from which they’ve taken something — especially when financial amends are obviously impossible. And yes, if he needed or had any kind or permit for being where he was or might go in the future, suspension or revocation would be in order. Local reports have said the federal government intends to seek reimbursement, but I don’t see how they expect any private citizen to repay that amount of money.

  3. probably some very needed public service would be something to consider. continue…

  4. As someone who’s been terrified of fire for as long as I can remember (I’ve been inside two different cars that simply decided to go all “flame on” on me – one as a kid and one as an adult), it’s hard for me to think of being so lenient on anyone who starts one – particularly one where so much more than a car and some lost groceries are at stake. At the same time though, I can’t really argue with your reasoning either.

    But here’s something to consider. I’m sure you’d all agree that a person who intentionally starts a big fire like that deserves the harshest punishment we can give them. Right? Perhaps even the death penalty when people are killed and/or terrorism is involved? If so, wouldn’t a spread of community service on one end and the death penalty on the other represent the widest punishment spectrum ever doled out for for crimes with such narrow distinctions between them?

    Anyway, I immediately thought of your previous fire image PT, when I saw the amazing image at
    Motha Natures Wrath. Pretty wild, eh? 😀

    • Wild indeed! Speaking for myself, and likely PT too, an intentional setting of a fire puts in a whole different light, punishment-wise. I know arson happens but I think it’s both rare and hard to detect, much less prove. But a convicted arsonist should get the top penalty in my opinion.

    • With two different house fires in my family’s past, and a forest fire that came within yards of taking out my brother’s house, I’m not too crazy about fires myself. I’m having terribly mixed emotions about this guy, especially considering the last big fire we had was started by the forest service, killed 3 people, and destroyed more than 20 homes. This guy’s fire was just an accident. Sh*t happens.

      Anyway, that photo you linked is scary awesome. Mama Nature was seriously perturbed!

    • PT: I meant to add a link for you in my previous comment – Al Qaeda magazine encourages forest fire arson in the US.

      For both PT and Jim: There aren’t many natural disasters I’d choose to be a victim of, but I think I’d put going through a firestorm at the very bottom of the list! On a more serious note, I think a series of terrorist-started forest fire attacks would be frighteningly easy to both pull off and to get away with. A few “lone wolfs” “accidentally” starting fires certainly stands a much greater chance of success than the old Fire balloons trick the Japanese tried back in WWII! 😯

      • Scary how easy that would be. Even before I read about the attacks being organized and using timed or remote detonation, I imagined someone just driving down a mountain road tossing out lit cigarettes. That alone could create chaos, but timers, etc., would allow the terrorist to be miles away before the fires started. Colorado has a lot of heavily populated mountain areas (ski and summer resorts and homes) with few main roads in and out, mostly following the valleys. Huge areas could be isolated and possibly destroyed … It would be a nightmare.

        I don’t remember hearing about the fire balloons in WWII, but there’s a link in the terrorist article to a map of where the balloons landed. They were very widespread.

        • Wow, I didn’t see that! I learned about them on one of those “weird weapons of war” type shows on TV. After seeing that article, I’m even more amazed than I was before that the damage was so limited! 😯

          • Geography was our friend. It’s hard to imagine the vast distances in the American West unless you’ve driven around out here. The odds were in our favor that most of the balloons would land in unpopulated, undeveloped areas. Almost like launching them over an ocean in the hope of hitting the islands.

  5. As a former back country guide for the Sierra Club, so long as he was camping within the certain restrictions (ie a flame-stove is okay to use), then he should not be punished. Our society always wants to have someone to blame and someone to “pay” for every bad act done. The man who started the whole mess is not guilty of anything, except being a klutz. I am sure that every day he wakes up he remembers and feels horrible. Unfortunately, accidents happen and sometimes the outcome is as horrid as this one.

    • I agree accidents happen. And I wasn’t thinking of “punishment” per se so much as just some kind of restitution. Maybe we need some sort of system like those I’ve heard of for high country rescues. You pay a small fee into some kind of pool or buy a license or permit if you plan to hike or climb in dangerous country, to help pay the expenses if some kind of rescue is needed. Those rescues can get very expensive.

"Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance." ~ Plato

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