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Alaska charter company pays $900,000 after guide likely caused wildfire by failing to properly extinguish campfire

An Alaska fishing guide company has paid $900,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. government alleging one of its guides caused a wildfire in 2019, the U.S. attorney's office for Alaska said in a statement Wednesday.

Court documents said the Groves Salmon Charters' guide, Joshua McDonald, started a campfire on July 8, 2019 at a campground around Mile 16 of the Klutina River near Copper Center, about 160 miles northeast of Anchorage, to keep fishermen warm. Later that day, a large forest fire along the Klutina River was reported near that area.

The government alleges McDonald started the campfire despite knowing there was a high fire danger at the time. Investigators determined the wildfire started after he failed to properly extinguish the campfire, according to the statement.

Messages were sent by The Associated Press to three email accounts and a voicemail was left at one phone number, all believed to belong to McDonald.

Stephanie Holcomb, who owns the guide service, told the AP in a phone interview that it's possible that others may have actually been to blame but in a civil case, the preponderance of evidence favors the plaintiff, in this case the government.

"Even in the settlement report, one of the last sentences was it cannot be substantiated that there wasn't other users at the site after Josh, so that's why I say life isn't always fair," Holcomb said. "I'm more than willing to take responsibility and to face this, but it's only a 51% chance — maybe — which seems like an awful lot of wiggle room to like really ruin someone's business."

A copy of the settlement was not available on the federal court online document site, and a request for a copy was made to the U.S. Attorney's office.

The $900,000 will help cover the costs incurred by state and federal firefighters to put out the wildfire, which burned a little more than a quarter-square-mile.

"As we experience longer fire seasons and more extreme fire behavior, we will hold anyone who ignites wildland fires accountable for the costs of fires they cause," S. Lane Tucker, the U.S. Attorney for Alaska, said in the statement.

Escaped campfires like this one are the most common human cause of wildfires on Bureau of Land Management-managed lands in Alaska, the federal agency said.

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