Restitution in last year’s 7,500-acre TRE fire was calculated down to the penny on Friday, when Wellington resident Steven Walter Cozad was ordered to pay $556,759.86.
Cozad was conducting an outdoor burn at his mother’s home, May 20, 2012, two days before sparks from the burn set the fire that destroyed two homes, several outbuildings and many vehicles.
Senior Judge Steve McMorris, who also sentenced Cozad to serve 70 days in jail, pointed out that it was unlikely that Cozad, who’s also facing an unrelated felony burglary charge, would ever be able to pay that money.
“Recovering that much money from Mr. Cozad won’t be easy,” he said. “I don’t want anyone going away from this hearing thinking that they will ever be made whole.”
Prosecutor Tom Gregory said he and defense attorney Kris Brown agreed on the sentence and the amount of restitution.
“Right after we made the charging decision, we met with residents in Topaz Ranch Estates about what this case was about,” Gregory said. “This case is not an arson case, nor was it ever an arson case. There never was any allegation that Mr. Cozad intended for this to happen, or that there was any malicious intent. He made an attempt to put the fire out, and thought it was out before winds rekindled the fire and led to the tragedy.”
Gregory said Cozad, 30, and his mother pulled a permit and burned on a day when burning was permitted.
“I’ve had some people ask me why we’re prosecuting this at all if it was a mistake,” he said. “The focus in this case from day one was deterrence. There are terrible fire conditions and the temperatures are expected to be in triple digits this weekend. We want folks to know that if they do a controlled burn, they need to do it correctly, and accept the massive responsibility that comes with it.”
Charges against Cozad’s mother, property owner Kim Carlin, were dropped. Homeowners and county officials hope that Carlin’s insurer will pay some of the claims, reducing the restitution Cozad owes.
One of the dangers of the criminal prosecution is that the insurance company might not pay on a claim if the homeowner is convicted of a criminal act.
Brown touched on that topic in defending Cozad.
“This act was of a very accidental nature,” she said. “It was not malicious, not an intentional act. Someone has to take responsibility, while also preserving the homeowner’s insurance. Hopefully the insurance company won’t be negated by any criminal proceedings.”
McMorris said the precise number for restitution was required at sentencing by a Nevada Supreme Court ruling.
Under a plea deal, Cozad pleaded guilty on Monday to stealing copper from a Foothill ranch and to misdemeanor burning in the TRE fire.
Under the agreement, Cozad will remain in custody until July 29, when he is scheduled for sentencing in the burglary. With time served, Cozad will have completed his justice court sentence by that date.
McMorris set a six-month review hearing for Dec. 13 to determine how much, if any, of the restitution Cozad was ordered to pay had been covered by insurance.
During sentencing, McMorris held up an inch-thick list of the losses residents suffered in the fire, and read some of their names with the amount they sought.
Sandstone Drive resident Harold Johnson sought $166,761 for the loss of his home and its contents.
“The crime and ensuing spread of the fire took away everything I built for over 40 years,” he said in a Jan. 8 statement. “Now I’m too old to repeat the work I endured when improving Topaz.”
Property owners Tim Taylor and John Erb attended the hearing on Friday. Neither man spoke to the court, and both declined to comment about the case.
Taylor’s family lost a home in the fire and Gregory indicated that Taylor asked in a written statement for the maximum sentence of six months.
The home’s owner at the time of the fire, Norman Knopp, died two weeks later of a heart attack. His caretaker wrote that he believed that losing the home contributed to Knopp’s death.
Fire spawns new burning rules
As a response to the devastation caused by the May 22, 2012, TRE fire, Douglas County commissioners approved a new outdoor burning ordinance on Thursday.
A controlled burn conducted by Cozad and his mother on May 20, 2012, was the cause of the fire, which claimed two homes, 17 other structures, and cost an estimated $3.4 million to extinguish.
Neighbors reported the burn was too big the morning of May 20, and East Fork Fire District firefighters responded to 1201 Slate Road.
Cozad’s mother, Kim Carlin, told investigators that the firefighters checked her burn permit and the pile, and made sure she had a means of putting the fire out before allowing her to continue to burn.
Two days later high winds drove a spark from the fire into the brush igniting the most expensive fire in Douglas County history.
The new ordinance increases the number of rules from eight to 19, and introduces nearly a dozen different classifications of permits into the county code.
Permits haven’t been required in the past, though residents have been required to have the rules for burning posted at their burn sites, and to call the fire district to find out if burning it permitted on a given day.
According to the new ordinance, open burn permits will be broken down into nearly a dozen different types, including large agricultural for parcels larger than 25 acres, agricultural for 10-25-acre operations, agricultural cooperator, ditch weed abatement, noxious weed abatement, seasonal open burning, ceremonial, recreational, special occurrence, governmental and emergency purpose.
The new ordinance includes substantial detail on what can’t be burned, including garbage, rubbish, oils, and plastic or rubber. That portion of the ordinance, which currently prohibits burn barrels, also requires that anyone who’s burning have a water supply and be at the scene of the burn with a means to call the fire department at all times.
Small fires used to heat branding irons for livestock and enclosed barbecue grills are both exempted from the ordinance.
Under the new code, firefighters will be able to enter on private property for the purpose of investigating a fire and determining if a permit has been issued. They will be able to extinguish a fire and can pursue reimbursement through the District Attorney’s Office for any costs associated with extinguishing a fire.