KEITH WHITCOMB JR., Staff Writer
BENNINGTON -- The state has announced its intention to fine two Bennington Rural firefighters for their part in lighting a camper on fire in May as part of the annual "Mudder's Day" event.
Open to public comment
The Agency of Natural Resources has technically not yet fined BRFD members Ryan Nystrom, 28, of Pleasant Street, or Roger Hughes, 35, of Northside Drive with "open burning of prohibited materials," but according to procedure has announced its intent to do so, and opened the matter to public comment.
Both are members of the Bennington Rural Fire Department, who with 13 other members were at the annual "Mudder's Day" mud-bogging event in May, the finale of which included a camper being set on fire while a vehicle drove through it. The stunt was filmed and put on YouTube, where members of the department could be seen putting out the fire.
John Zaikowski, environmental enforcement attorney for the Agency of Natural Resources Compliance and Enforcement Division, said the public can comment on the matter by going the Agency of Natural Resources website or writing a letter to the agency. The comment period will be open until Nov. 2, after which the ANR enforcement division will review the information and decide on whether to go ahead with the citation.
If it does not drop the matter, Hughes and Nystrom can pay a waiver fine of $300 or appeal the matter to the Environmental Court, which can negate the citations or impose a fine of between $150 to $1,000. The process is similar to traffic court, said Zaikowski.
Hughes and Nystrom were among the 15 firefighters suspended from the department in June. All 15 were reinstated relatively quickly, however, after a meeting of the department's Prudential Committee where roughly 80 people attended in support of them.
Both Hughes and Nystrom told the Banner Thursday that they were the ones who set the fire, believing any permits necessary were in place and that them lighting it was the safest course of action.
"I was doing it unaware of any issues," said Nystrom, "and it was not my intent to do anything illegal."
Nystrom has been an active member of the department for six years and is also a member of the North Bennington Fire Department. He said at no point during his training has this type of situation come up, however he plans to take responsibility for the matter and does not expect to appeal the pending citation.
He said the department was on hand for the event as a safety precaution, and it seemed to him that having a trained firefighter in full gear set the camper alight was a safer alternative than one of the event organizers doing it.
Hughes, a captain with 14 years on the department, echoed Nystrom's sentiments. He said the department has done many controlled burns in the past, some of which he has ignited, and permitting was handled by the department's chiefs and engineers.
The event's head organizer, Milo Campbell, had to get permission from the town to run the event, which took place on property off Gulley Lane on May 12. Hughes said for this reason he assumed all the needed permits were in place.
He said that at future burns, he will ask to see permits as responsibility falls on the one lighting the fire.
"I'm the one who said, ‘Hey, why don't we do this,' because that was the safer option," Hughes said, adding that while he does not regret doing what he did from a safety standpoint, had he known it was illegal he would not have participated nor would he have allowed the fire to be set. He said he feels it is unfortunate that embarrassment was brought down on the department, but ignorance of the law is not an excuse.
Both he and Nystrom said they were up front about what happened from the start of the investigation. Hughes likewise said he does not intend to appeal, nor does he intend to ask the fire district to cover the fine.
The web page where the public can comment can be found at www.anr.state.vt.us/dec/co/enf/cfm/pubnotice/enf-draftAOAOD.cfm. To reach that page, go to the ANR's home page, www.anr.state.vt.us, then click on the "Environmental Conservation" tab to the left. Mouse over "Divisions and Programs" to call up a drop-down menu, then click "Compliance and Enforcement Division." On the right side of the page, click "Public Notice & Opportunity to Comment." Nystrom and Hughes' matters are under "Proposed Civil Complaints."
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.