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Some LDS church members living near this month's wildfire in Herriman have been admonished not to exaggerate or file fraudulent claims for reimbursement.
A letter from three Herriman Rose Canyon Stake leaders dated Sunday and addressed to members says, "a few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are sullying their own good name and the name of the church by such dishonest actions."
Meanwhile, Utah National Guard Maj. Rob Parsons warned against unscrupulous cleanup companies who might charge for bids to repair fire damage, require a contract in exchange for a bid or inflate their prices.
Guard soldiers training with machine guns at Camp Williams ignited the Machine Gun Fire on Sept. 19. The blaze burned 4,326 acres and destroyed three homes. The Utah National Guard has vowed to pay the cost of firefighting and reimburse claims filed by Herriman residents.
The blaze forced the evacuation of some 1,600 people, and flying ash, soot and smoke damaged additional houses. The sheer number of people whose homes and possessions were damaged is much larger than most Guard related disasters, officials said Wednesday.
"We've dealt with range fires before but not where this many people were affected," said Ben Kinsley, a claims attorney for the National Guard in Fort Carson, Colo., the regional command center over Utah.
Thuy Lam of the federal Defense Financing and Accounting Service also said he hadn't dealt with a group of claims this large from a single incident.
About 700 people had checked in at the claims center as of Tuesday night, five days after it opened, and about 523 of those claims had been settled, according to Parsons and Lam.
"We're seeing some [bids] we believe are high based on square footage or a visit," Kinsley said. He considered unscrupulous companies to be a greater threat to the claims process than people who inflate their own claims.
The Utah Department of Commerce has not received any complaints about cleanup companies, said department spokeswoman Jennifer Bolton. But Bolton encouraged concerned Herriman residents to make a complaint.
It's not only cleanup companies who occasionally inflate the cost of damage, according to the stake presidency.
"We are saddened by several reports coming to us of some of our members taking advantage of the willingness of the Utah National Guard to reimburse cleanup or damage expenses ... ," the e-mailed letter begins. "It is reported that some members are filing fraudulent claims by exaggerating the amount of damage, cleaning expenses or expenses incurred while living away from home.
"Others have expressed the opinion that, 'I deserve as much as I can get, because they caused all this!' We invite all to consider their individual situations in light of a Christlike approach."
The letter goes on to say there is no intent "to cause any grief" to people with legitimate claims and reimbursement for "actual expenditures" is appropriate.
But the letter also tells members: "Remember the next time you sit with a member of your bishopric or stake presidency in an interview for renewal of your temple recommend, you will want to be able to sincerely answer the question, 'Are you honest in your dealings with your fellow men?'"
A temple recommend is issued to Mormons in good standing so they may enter LDS temples to attend marriages and other family and spiritual ceremonies.
The letter did not specify what the stake presidency considers to be a legitimate claim or one that is exaggerated or fraudulent. There were no examples of the reports that concerned the presidency.
The letter's closing bears three names from the stake presidency. Those men did not return calls seeking comment as of Wednesday afternoon.
But several residents who spoke Wednesday to The Salt Lake Tribune said they knew of cases where damage had been exaggerated.
Misty Smith said people in her neighborhood had ripped out their carpets before attempting to clean them and submitting a claim for the work.
"I think it hurts those who lost more than I did," said Smith, who submitted a claim of $250 for cleaning her carpets soiled with ash and smoke.
One woman, who also asked to be anonymous for fear of alienating neighbors, knew of people who had removed their carpets and installed hardwood floors with damage claim money. Another woman, who had received the stake e-mail but also asked not to be named, said she'd heard of people requesting six or seven bids and submitting the highest-cost bid for reimbursement, but employing the lowest bidder for the work. They then pocketed the difference.
Herriman Mayor Josh Mills on Wednesday said the letter may deter people from filing legitimate claims but also deter some illegitimate ones.
Mills, who works in commercial trucking insurance, regards a legitimate claim as any damage caused by fire or smoke as well as bills for motel stays and away-from-home meals. As for illegitimate claims, Mills gave the example of someone wanting payment for a tree that was dead before the fire.
"If you're going to brag to someone about getting it covered, it might not be legitimate," Mills said, adding, "People are generally honest."
Residents witness smoke in Herriman
Fire crews are in Herriman to make sure an area near the Machine Gun Fire doesn't ignite again. Residents reported smoke in the area of 15280 S. Rose Canyon Road (7850 West), said Capt. Brad Taylor of the Unified Fire Authority. No one reported any flames. Apparently, a small island of land remains unburned in an area that was mostly consumed by the Machine Gun Fire, which started Sept. 19 during a live-fire training exercise at nearby Camp Williams. "It looks like it's a hot spot," Taylor said. "We have a team out there."