Border Patrol agent pleads guilty to starting 46,000-acre fire with exploding target

A Border Patrol agent pleaded guilty Friday to starting the Sawmill Fire that burned 46,000 acres southeast of Tucson, Arizona in 2017. Dennis Dickey was holding an off duty party to celebrate his wife’s pregnancy at which the gender of his baby was revealed. On April 23 he mixed colored powder into a Tannerite exploding target which would show blue or pink smoke when shot with a rifle, according to his attorney, Sean Chapman, as reported by the Arizona Daily Star. The target exploded as planned and started what became the Sawmill Fire. A witness recorded a video of the explosion.

A news release from the U.S. attorney’s office says Agent Dickey will make an initial payment of $100,000, then make monthly payments after that. According to the Arizona Daily Star and the Green Valley News, he agreed in court to pay $500 a month for the next 20 years, which adds up to $120,000, for a total of $220,000. He also will be sentenced to 5 years of probation and agreed to participate in a public service announcement with the U.S. Forest Service concerning the cause of the Sawmill fire.

The off-duty agent could not be charged with arson since it was not a willful act. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of causing a fire without a permit, which may allow him to keep his job as a Border Patrol Agent.

Agent Dickey said he attempted to put out the fire but when that failed, he reported it. At one point during the next week at least 799 firefighters were working to put out the fire, which ran up costs of approximately $8.2 million according to the May 5, 2017 national Situation Report.

satellite map Sawmill Fire Arizona
A satellite photographed the darkened outline of the Sawmill Fire east of Green Valley, Arizona on April 26, 2017. The red dots represent heat.

On April 23, 2017, the day the fire started, the Hopkins weather station not far from where the fire began near Madera Canyon, recorded a high temperature of 80 degrees, 11 mph WSW winds gusting to 25, and 6 percent relative humidity. The weather station is at 7,100 feet and the location of the party where the fire started is most likely around 4,000 feet. If correct, this would put the temperature at the fire origin between 90 and 100 degrees.

In court, Agent Dickey told the judge, “It was a complete accident”.

Exploding targets consist of two ingredients that when mixed by the end user explode when shot by a high-velocity projectile. They have caused many fires since they became more popular in recent years, have been banned in some areas, and caused the death of one person. In June, 2013 a man attending a bachelor-bachelorette party in Minnesota was killed after shrapnel from the device struck him in the abdomen. The Missoulian reported that several years ago a woman in Ohio had her hand nearly blown off while taking a cellphone video of a man firing at an exploding target placed in a refrigerator about 150 feet away. In Georgia in 2016 David Pressley’s leg was blown off by an exploding target that he placed in a lawn mower.

After the ingredients are combined, the compound is illegal to transport and is classified as an explosive by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and is subject to the regulatory requirements in 27 CFR, Part 555.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.