Mesa man who started Sunflower wildfire sentenced to probation

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Steven Craig Shiflet By Catherine Holland Steven Craig Shiflet By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX (AP) -- A Mesa man was sentenced to two years of probation Monday for setting the third-largest wildfire in Arizona last year by firing a flame-throwing shotgun round during a camping trip.

Steven Craig Shiflet, 25, had pleaded guilty last year to federal misdemeanors and admitted starting the nearly 18,000-acre Sunflower wildfire near Payson on May 12 when he and four friends went to the Sycamore Creek area for a campout and bachelor party.

Authorities say vegetation caught fire after Shiflet fired an incendiary shotgun shell at an empty soda box during target practice. The group called authorities and tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire. Incendiary shotgun shells fire flames rather than gunshot.

"This is something I absolutely never intended to happen and I am extremely sorry for," Shiflet told U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Logan before he was sentenced.

The fire didn't cause any injuries or damage to homes or buildings, but it cleared out trees and vegetation and made the area vulnerable to a flood that occurred later in the year, said Tonto National Forest spokeswoman Paige Rockett.

The large amounts of debris and ash produced by the fire also washed away into the various canals that that feed water treatment plants in the Phoenix area. Workers began seeing murky water at a Mesa plant over the winter because of the fire, and the staff "had to work harder to make sure the water was safe," said Kathryn Sorensen, director of the Water Resources Department for city of Mesa.

It never affected the quality of customers' tap water, she said.

Prosecutors weren't seeking to have Shiflet pay the $4.4 million in firefighting costs because such costs weren't included in the plea agreement. The U.S. Attorney's Office, which prosecuted Shiflet, declined to say whether it would file a civil case against him to recoup those costs.

The wildfire was the state's third largest last year when measured in acres. The state had 1,684 wildfires last year that burned a total of 216,000 acres.

Officials believe a few dozen fires in the West last year were started by people using firearms - often in dry, forest areas that are popular for target practice.

Logan said Shiflet had led what appeared to be an otherwise model life and that locking him up isn't necessary because he isn't likely to repeat his mistake.

Shiflet pleaded guilty last year to firing incendiary ammunition and causing trees and brush to burn without authorization. The maximum possible penalty he faced was one year in prison. He was fined $2,000 and ordered to serve 200 community-service hours working with the Forest Service.

Shiflet's attorney, Elizabeth Kruschek, said her client is a productive person who made a mistake and cooperated fully with investigators. "This is someone who has taken full responsibility," Kruschek said.

Prosecutor Vincent Kirby said Shiflet didn't start the fire with malice but pointed out that the incendiary shotgun round had a warning on it about extreme fire danger.

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