Sawmill Fire

The Sawmill Fire burned nearly 47,000 acres in 2017.

This story has been updated to reflect a breakdown of restitution.

Border Patrol agent Dennis Dickey is facing millions of dollars in restitution after pleading guilty Friday to a misdemeanor charge of causing a fire without a permit, 17 months after he admitted to accidentally starting the 47,000-acre Sawmill Fire east of Green Valley.

Dickey, 37, will be sentenced Oct. 9, and will be ordered to pay $8,188,069 in restitution, the estimated cost of fighting the fire. He will also receive five years' probation, and will be ordered to create a public service announcement about the cause of the fire.

For restitution, Dickey will relinquish $100,000 from his retirement fund immediately, then make monthly payments of $500 for 20 years, for a total of $220,000.

At the end of 20 years, the case goes back to a judge who can then make a decision on future restitution.

Specifically, Dickey will be ordered to pay roughly $5.2 million to the U.S. Forest Service, $2.3 million to the State of Arizona, $563,000 to the Bureau of Land Management, $85,000 to Rosemont Copper and $30,000 to the Robinson Cattle Company.

During Friday's proceedings, Dickey told the court the fire was a “complete accident.”

“I feel absolutely horrible about it,” he said.

According to court records, Dickey started a fire by shooting a rifle at a target he constructed in the Coronado National Forest on April 23, 2017.

In support of Dickey’s summons, U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Brent Robinson wrote: “Inside the target Dickey placed an amount of Tannerite, an explosive substance, intended to detonate when shot by a high-velocity firearm bullet. Dickey fired the shot that exploded the Tannerite target and the resulting explosion caused a fire that spread and resulted in damage to more than 45,000 acres of land, and that explosion was caught on film by a witness.”

Dickey did not have a permit “allowing him to cause timber, trees, slash, brush or grass to burn,” Robinson wrote.

The Border Patrol declined in the early months of the investigation to comment on Dickey’s employment status, citing privacy policies. In June, the agency said he was "in full duty status." The fire began on state land east of Green Valley and went over the Santa Rita Mountains, and was out about a week later. It led to the evacuation of hundreds of people and closed SR83 for three days.

Green Valley Fire District Chief Chuck Wunder’s in-laws lost 5,000 acres of ranch land and the fire came within 50 yards of their home and 100 feet of their barn.

At its height, about 800 firefighters fought the fire. Much of the charred acreage was grazing land leased from the U.S. Forest Service, the state and the University of Arizona Experimental Range. No structures were lost.

Kim Smith | 547-9740