On June 17, 2017, a wildfire ignited in the Cedar Mountain area of Iron County, in the vicinity of Brian Head, Utah. A large number of firefighting personnel and aircraft were deployed to take suppression efforts on the fire.
During firefighting efforts on June 27, 2017, firefighters working in the vicinity of Henderson Hill heard “popping” sounds. The firefighters first thought the “popping” sounds were rocks exploding due to heat, but as the sound continued for approximately five minutes, firefighters realized the “popping” sound was actually ammunition exploding in the fire.
Once the sound subsided, firefighters hiked into the area and located a cabin structure which had burned to the ground. Nearby, firefighters also located a bunker dug into the ground. Inside the bunker, firefighters found a box of what appeared to be novelty hand-grenades, which had been altered, by drilling-out the bottoms and plugging the drilled holes with threaded, galvanized pipe plugs. Firefighters also saw what appeared to be explosive powder, fuses, and ammunition. Also in the bunker was a large number of boxes and containers which were being used as food storage. Firefighters took some cursory photographs, left the area, and notified law enforcement.
Due to the presence of potentially dangerous items, and for the safety of firefighting personnel, firefighting action in the immediate area of the burned cabin was changed to aerial suppression only.
The following day, the Iron County Sheriff's Office (ICSO) notified the Washington County bomb squad, and requested assistance in disposing of the dangerous items. The bomb squad requested additional assistance from the FBI’s Salt Lake City division Special Agent Bomb Technicians (SABTs).
On June 30, Law Enforcement Officials from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Special Agents from the United States Forest Service (USFS), Washington County Bomb Squad and Special Agent Bomb Technicians of the FBI were briefed by investigators representing the ICSO, Utah State Highway Patrol's Helicopter, and the Washington County Bomb Squad. It was determined a contingent would be flown by helicopter to the remote bunker sight, where the explosives and other materials would be assessed, and disposed of.
Also, in furtherance of the safety of that operation, and to determine exactly what officers would encounter in the bunker and surrounding area, another contingent of officers would attempt to locate and interview a person who investigators believed to have knowledge of, and possibly be responsible for, the cabin and bunker.
On June 30, officers executed their plans, with some officers going to the location of the bunker by way of the UHP helicopter, and some going to a residence in Parowan.
Officers responding to Parowan were able to locate the person of interest at his residence, and an interview was conducted. During the interview the person was cooperative and eventually admitted to officers the bunker and burned-down cabin were his; and he had indeed purchased, drilled-out, and threaded the novelty hand- grenades. The person also told officers the hand grenades were not an explosive hazard to firefighters or officers responding to the location.
The person further told officers he has approximately seven or eight such cabin structures and bunkers hidden throughout the area; and that most are supplied with food-storage, firearms, and ammunition, and he had built the shelters and storage caches over course of several years.
Officers and Bomb-technicians who responded to the initial bunker by helicopter located dozens of hand-grenades. The hand grenades were assessed, and found to be in an inert condition, however some contained fuses and some did not. Bomb technicians destroyed several hand grenades and a significant quantity of black powder on site.
During a subsequent fly-over, investigators located two other structures the person had pointed-out on a map while being interviewed. Fire crews working on an adjacent mountainside also located a cache of burned-up ammunition and food storage cans.
The following day investigators hiked to each of the locations and determined the cabins, bunker and storage caches were on public land managed by the USFS, and on land owned and managed by the Utah State Institutional Trust Land - (Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration) (SITLA).
Investigators found the two cabins on USFS managed lands had been burned to the ground in the fire. The cabins had been constructed using concrete footings, at the four corners of the cabin, to which the structure had been anchored, and also had a corrugated metal roof, a metal stove and chimney, and the cabin had contained some tools.
Investigators also hiked to the other cabin which had been identified on a map by the responsible person. This cabin was located on a steep mountainside outside of the fire area, and it was determined this cabin was on land owned and managed by SITLA. This cabin was still intact and untouched by the fire, which was approximately 4 feet wide by 8 feet long and 10 feet tall. It was made of plywood and two-by-four beams secured to concrete footings. A search of the cabin found it contained two bunk-beds, food and water storage, reading material, comfort items, and a small amount of ammunition.
In conversations with the USFS, the Utah State Department of Natural Resources, and SITLA, those agencies related they take very seriously the danger explosive caches pose to firefighters and the public; as well as the degradation of the public land through the unlawful construction of shelters, bunkers and storage caches.
Investigations into the illegal cabins, bunker and storage caches is still ongoing at this time. The person responsible for the cabins, bunker, and storage caches is cooperating with investigators and has accompanied investigators to each of the locations, described when they were constructed, and what was stored at each location.
Officers with the USFS and ICSO have so far cleaned up and removed all burned debris from the cabins, dismantled the bunker, and removed all of the items that had been stored inside the bunker. Officers have also removed burned items and debris from other small storage caches in the surrounding areas that the person has shown officers, and that were located by fire crews working on the Brian Head fire. Due to the remote locations of the cabins, and large volume of burned debris and stored property, officers had to use helicopters during the removal of debris and property at two of the locations.
At the completion of the investigation, a case will be presented to the Iron County Attorney, and to the Utah United States Attorney’s Office for consideration of charges, and potential restitution for the cost of removal of the burned debris and property.
This Press release was compiled from those agencies involved.
For more information contact:
Lt. Del Schlosser
Iron County Sheriff’s Office
435-867-7500 Office Ext 7542
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