Church sued over Uintas fire

State, feds say LDS officials had a duty to supervise Boy Scouts
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Utah and federal authorities have added the LDS Church to lawsuits seeking nearly $14 million for costs incurred in a 2002 wildfire that burned more than 14,000 acres in the Uinta Mountains.

On Friday, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Utah Attorney General's Office amended their lawsuits to include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its Peoa ward as defendants just as deadlines to add defendants were looming.

The original complaints named only the Great Salt Lake Council of the Boy Scouts of America and the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) as defendants in the suits.

Prosecutors wanted to avoid "an empty-chair defense," said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah. Now, with the LDS Church and the ward added to the suits, nobody can point fingers at people not named in the complaints, she said.

Evidence indicates that Boy Scouts from a troop sponsored by the LDS Church sparked the fire on June 28, 2002, at the East Fork of the Bear River Boy Scout Camp in Summit County, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"The LDS Church had a duty, both directly and through its appointed troop leaders, to supervise its . . . Scouts during their attendance at the camp in June of 2002, and to ensure that no fires were built by those Scouts in violation of the fire restriction order and sound fire prevention practices," the state's suit argues.

State and federal authorities claim that the Great Salt Lake Council was in charge of supervising the Scouts when the fire started. However, Robert Wallace, who is representing the BSA and the Great Salt Lake Council, said it is not clear when the fire started.

LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills said simply, "We are investigating the matter."

At Boy Scout camp, Scouts can either be under the direct supervision of the council sponsoring the camp, the local sponsoring organization or they can be on their own, Wallace said. He said the Scouts have never taken the position that if Scouts started the fire, they were under the direct control of their sponsoring entity at the time.

The federal complaint alleges the church had, at all times, the right to and did exercise control over the selection of the troop's leaders as well as their training and supervision of their activities in those capacities.

The church also had total "dominion and control" over the Peoa ward, including the appointment of the ward's bishop, the suit contends. And the ward, through the bishop, had "dominion and control over the selection, appointment and training of adult leaders of Troop 149," according to the suit.

The blaze was caused by a group of about 20 Scouts - ages 11 to 14 - who were spending the night in improvised shelters to earn survival merit badges, the state and federal lawsuits allege.

Despite BSA policy requiring at least two adult leaders for all Scouting activities, the overnight group was supervised by two 15-year-old boys, the lawsuits further claim.

And although a ban against open fires was initiated by the Utah State Forester on June 21, the overnight group started numerous fires during the night, though the ban was widely communicated throughout the Scout camp and was known to the 15-year-olds, the lawsuits contend.

Five Scouts from Troop 149, sponsored by the Peoa ward in Peoa, built a fire on a highly combustible layer of "duff," consisting of dead and decaying woody debris, the suit states. The Scouts left the next morning without verifying the fire was out, the lawsuits allege.

The fire smoldered in the duff, surfaced later that afternoon and grew into the East Fork Fire, prosecutors allege.

The blaze forced evacuation of the Scout camp, nearby campgrounds and summer homes. At its height, the fire was fought by 1,100 firefighters from around the country.

The suit filed in U.S. district court seeks $13,344,320 for firefighting costs and rehabilitation to damaged land.

The state lawsuit, filed in 3rd District Court, asks for $606,424 to reimburse the state's firefighting expenses.

Discussions with the parties are ongoing, but Rydalch said there is still a ways to go.

"We are still hopeful this can be resolved short of a trial," she said.