County man sentenced for role in 2018 wildfires

Nathan Oster

A Big Horn County man pled guilty last week to a misdemeanor charge of knowingly causing a wildfire that burned timber, trees, slash, brush and grass on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management in 2018.

Brandon Kenneth Nyberg was sentenced on Wednesday, July 14 to two years of unsupervised probation, with conditions, and to pay restitution in the amount of $4,616.98 as well as a $25 special assessment for his role in starting the wildfires.

Among the court-ordered conditions of his unsupervised probation is that he not violate another federal, state or local crime and also remain in compliance with any and all other court orders.

The sentence was handed down in U.S. District Court in Lander — almost three years to the day of the wildfire that Nyberg now admits to starting.

Court documents shed light on the case against Nyberg, which arose on July 9, 2018 when BLM Supervisor Brad Jones was called away from the Terek Fire to respond to a report of a new fire near McDermott Butte and Highway 31 in Manderson.

Jones was attempting to gain access to the fire when he was advised that another fire had started off Highway 31. Both were believed, and later confirmed, to be human caused. When Jones arrived at 920 Highway 31, he found Nyberg and Sierra Brown with a water hose standing east of a barn and house.

In his interview with the ranger, Nyberg said he hadn’t seen much and that he’d been watching the fire in the distance from his grandparents’ house. He said he didn’t see anyone in the area who could have started the fire, suggesting it must have been a spot fire from the larger Terek Fire. Nyberg denied starting the fires in that initial interview, then again on July 10, 2018 under questioning from Ranger Robert Lind.

On July 18, BLM Fire Investigator Teresa Rigby determined that the McDermott Butte Fire started on and burned approximately 6 acres of BLM-managed lands while the Highway 31 Fire started on private land and burned onto BLM-managed lands. Rigby ruled out accidental and natural causes, suggesting instead that both fires were “hot sets” — meaning they were ignited by an open flame, such as a lighter.

On May 3, 2019, Nyberg was interviewed by BLM investigators at his grandparents’ residence in Manderson. The charging document alleges that in the course of that interview, Nyberg “initially claimed he thought he had accidentally caused the fires with his cigarette or by ‘back burning.’ However, when confronted with the fact that the fire investigation did not corroborate either of those causes, Nyberg admitted to starting the fires with a lighter.”

With the case now behind him, Nyberg continues to maintain that he was simply “backburning” his grandparents’ field that day in 2018 due to concerns about the advancing Tyrek Fire.

“The lesson to be learned is, always call before you burn,” said Nyberg. “I know a lot of people who burn on private land, don’t call it in (to the sheriff’s office) and nobody gets in trouble.

“I should have made the call, though. If I had, I wouldn’t have been in this situation.”