BLM sends man $1 million bill for wildfire

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2000

ANCHORAGE - The federal government is charging an Eklutna man $1 million in efforts to recover the costs associated with fighting a wildfire he's accused of setting.

The Bureau of Land Management claim against Larry Traw is the largest such bill ever sent to a private citizen in Alaska, government officials said Thursday.

The fire raced across 383 acres 25 miles northeast of Anchorage last May. It cost the BLM $1,094,251.96 to put out, said agency spokeswoman Anne Jeffery.

The fire charred mainly Native and military land and resulted from Traw's negligence, Jeffery said.

``It was obvious from the burn pattern that the fire originated in the slash pile on his land,'' she said. ``It went from the slash pile . . . to the woods.''

Traw is denying any responsibility and said he will fight the claim.

Traw admitted that he burned slash on his 60-acre parcel, but said that had been done weeks before the wildfire started May 18.

Traw's attorney, Dan Quinn, said a large area of cleared land separated the slash piles from the woods.

Traw said he had lost 5,000 trees on his Eklutna property to spruce bark beetles. He recently began a hay-farming operation and has burned a number of slash piles.

``The way he burns, he puts something like gasoline on the pile, and it flames up for a short period of time and just smolders,'' Quinn said. ``There is no flame from these piles in weeks. It's just a slow smolder.''

What caused the fire was a weird weather pattern that ignited several fires in the area, Traw said.

``It was four- or five fires,'' Traw said. ``To be honest, they don't even know if it started on my place.'' Hunters were in the area at the same time, he said.

Agency investigators had heard nothing about any hunters, Jeffery said.

Winds at the time picked up quickly and fanned several fires about the same time, mostly in the Matanuska-Susitna area, state forestry officials said.

The state did not fine Traw or try to collect for its firefighting efforts. But it did issue him a written warning, one of 125 issued statewide last year, said John See, a state forestry coordinator.

The state also issued 18 citations for fire negligence last year and collected $27,773 in fines, See said.

Firefighting costs statewide were about $25 million. They were shared about equally between the state and federal governments.

``We're fully convinced nothing was intentional,'' Jeffery told the Anchorage Daily News.

The fire ``was totally by accident. It's just that you have to be responsible,'' she said.

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