After nearly two years of legal conferences with affected parties, the man who ignited a wildfire that burned nearly 65,000 acres from the Little Wood Reservoir north of Carey to the southern slopes of Swede Peak in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in 2018 was sentenced on Monday.
Ryan Jensen, 37, was ordered to spend five days in jail, complete 400 hours of community service and pay restitution totaling $303,300 to the parties directly impacted by the fire’s destruction. His homeowner’s insurance will cover $300,000 of it, and he’ll pay $3,300 out-of-pocket.
The total cost of extinguishing the Sharps Fire was over $9 million, according to prosecuting attorney Angela Nelson.
Jensen admitted to sparking the blaze on July 29, 2018, when he spoke to police three days later, confessing to starting the fire with an exploding target, according to the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office. Jensen was charged with one count of setting fire to “timber or prairie lands,” a misdemeanor under Idaho code that carries a maximum punishment of six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine.
Though he initially pleaded not guilty, Jensen changed his plea to guilty on Monday.
Due to the “unique magnitude” of the offense, 5th District Magistrate Judge Jennifer Haemmerle suggested a restorative justice conference early on in the case. According to her statements on Monday, the maximum punishments for the misdemeanor crime “seemed inadequate due to the scope and impact on the community.”
The restorative justice conference, a sort of settlement conference typically used in juvenile cases, was mediated by 5th District Magistrate Judge Mark Ingram and involved private land owners whose property burned, a representative from the Bureau of Land Management, a representative of the Idaho Department of Lands, a Blaine County commissioner and others.
According to Brian Bean, owner of Lava Lake Ranch, which was severely burned by the wildfire, the justice conference was successful. During the sentencing hearing, he thanked Jensen for his “willingness” to participate and find a resolution for everyone.
While his property near Carey is affected by fires nearly every year, Bean told the court during his victim impact statement Monday, the Sharps Fire was the worst that has ever hit his property.
“This was no two-bit fire,” Bean said, adding that he lost thousands of acres, “reduced to black and gray ash.”
The Sharps Fire was the largest in the county since the Beaver Creek Fire burned about 115,000 acres in 2013. The blaze was ultimately extinguished in late August, deep in the Pioneer Mountains, and required assistance from Great Basin Incident Management Team 1 as well as the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and local fire agencies.
Beyond land impacts, the fire also left scars on livestock, many of which had to be moved quickly during emergency evacuations. Bean told the court that one band of sheep that is managed by his company had to be relocated twice in less than 30 days due to two human-caused fires, one being the Sharps Fire. The multiple moves cost pounds on his animals, who lost weight after they were transported to different grazing lands multiple times in a short time.
As the restorative justice conference went on, Bean and other impacted land owners considered the dollar amount lost versus the opportunity to warn the public on the dangers of exploding targets and the need for better education around the impacts of wildfires on the environment, the economy and the community.
In addition to the financial restitution, Jensen will be responsible for dedicating 400 hours of his time to a long list of community service projects, including repairing damaged fences caused by the fire and response, educating local school children on the dangers of exploding targets and fires, helping to replant vegetation killed by the fire. He’ll also work with local elected officials and state legislators to educate people of fire safety and to advocate for laws banning the sale and use of exploding targets like the one that started the fire.
The Sharps Fire was sparked by a tannerite target, which are banned on public land in Idaho from May 10 through Oct. 10 due to fire risk, according to the BLM. Jensen’s defense attorney, Doug Nelson—no relation to Angela Nelson, the prosecutor—said during the sentencing hearing Monday that exploding targets should be outlawed altogether due to their potential dangers.
Jensen’s five-day jail sentence will begin July 25, the week the Sharps Fire began two years ago. He will be on supervised probation for two years, and will be prohibited from possessing or using a firearm for a minimum of one year. Haemmerle gave 34 days of discretionary jail time to his probation officer, which can be ordered in 72-hour increments if Jensen does not comply with the terms of his probation.
Jensen apologized to the court during his statement prior to sentencing, recognizing the gravity of his mistake.
“I’d simply like to reiterate how sorry I am,” he said. “I’m quite ashamed.”