Investigation finds Hilltop Fire caused by children with matches
By Robert Stevens
INDIANOLA—An investigation by the Utah Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands (FFSL) has found that young children playing with matches caused the Hilltop Fire, which burned 1,400 acres in the Indianola area in early August.
The children’s and their mother’s escape from their property about one mile south of Indianola after the fire took off is itself a harrowing tale.
In a “Fire Cause and Determination Report,” Jason Curry, lead FFSL investigator for the Hilltop Fire, said when he arrived in the area on Aug. 8, the day after the fire started, he found a number of clues pointing to the cause of the fire.
Curry studied the direction of the fire spread and found disturbances in the soil where someone had tried to stomp out a fire, along with a shovel and buckets strewn on the ground.
“I continued to trace fire direction indicators, which led me to an area about 12 feet wide and 6 feet long where the fire originated,” Curry wrote in his report. “I began searching this area carefully and found a partially burned wooden match in a clump of burned grass.”
After a full search of the area, Curry found 24 partially burned matched and a “makeshift fort of branches”—the size, Curry noted, that would accommodate a child.
Curry found multiple spots where fires had ignited grass and juniper needles, then been stomped out, but he said the very first match he found was the match the led to child’s play getting out of hand.
Curry made contact with the nearby homeowner, and found out his children and wife had been home while he was at work the day the fire started.
Curry arranged to meet with the homeowner’s wife and children at the residence of a friend they stayed with after homes in the area were evacuated.
According to Curry’s report, the family had two children, ages 7 and 8. The mother had been in the house when the youngsters came in to the house upset about the fire they had ignited.
The mother and children tried to use buckets and shovels to douse the fire, but to no avail. The mother called 911 and got the children and herself in the family vehicle with the children. She told Curry she was so afraid of the approaching smoke and flames that she didn’t stop to open the gate—she ran right through it.
When Curry spoke to the children, after they warmed up to him, they told him about their game of lighting small fires with a box of wooden matches and then stamping them out, the report stated. The problem was that they lit one fire they were unable to put out.
In Curry’s report, he said one of the children, a girl, told him “they only ever wanted to start small fires they could put out.”
After a long interview with the children and their mother, Curry let them know he was not considering any referrals to juvenile court.
“I told them there would be a discussion with the state’s attorney general to determine what type of cost-recovery efforts the state would pursue,” Curry said. “There is often a claim made on insurance to cover some of the costs of putting out fires.”
The cost-recovery decision probably will not be made for a long time, he said.