Man pleads no contest to accidentally setting Chena Hot Springs fire

Posted: Friday, June 28, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The man blamed for unintentionally starting the fire that burned roughly 23,000 acres and four cabins near the end of Chena Hot Springs Road last month has pleaded no contest to illegal burning.

State forestry officials said Asger Hoyem was burning trash May 23 in a short burn barrel without a suitable screen cover and didn't have vegetation cleared around the barrel. Embers from the burn barrel ignited nearby dry grass and flames spread quickly into nearby black spruce.

Hoyem, who had no phone at his house, had to walk 90 minutes to find a phone and report the fire, said Marc Lee, Fairbanks area forester for the Alaska Division of Forestry.

Hoyem, who represented himself, pleaded no contest at his arraignment Thursday in Fairbanks to burning without a burn permit, not having an adequate fire break around the barrel and failure to exercise due care to put the fire out.

''Mr. Hoyem was very cooperative, remorseful and honest regarding the fire,'' said Michael McGowan, a fire prevention supervisor who investigated the blaze. McGowan spoke at Hoyem's arraignment Thursday afternoon.

Magistrate Ronald Smith sentenced Hoyem to either pay $1,200 in fines or serve a total of 192 hours of community service within two years with 90 days of jail time suspended.

But whether Hoyem, 35, will have to pay for the $3.4 million it took to fight the fire or will have to pay homeowners for the four cabins, each estimated to be worth between $25,000 and $175,000, won't be determined until later.

Smith set a restitution hearing for Sept. 26 to give property owners a chance to testify.

Hoyem told Smith he was self-employed and didn't have any insurance.

''I'm scrounging whatever work I can find,'' Hoyem said. ''I do some dirt work and building projects.''

Smith said the restitution may go directly to private property owners instead of to the state because of Hoyem's inability to cover all the costs.

Hoyem could also face civil lawsuits from cabin owners and the state. Lee said the attorney general's office has not decided whether to seek damages.

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