Authorities dismiss charges against man accused of igniting fire in Cottonwood Heights on July 4

Posted at 9:35 PM, Sep 15, 2017

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS, Utah -- Charges against a man accused of starting a fire in Cottonwood Heights on July 4th were dropped Friday.

The fire burned about 25 acres, including a home along Banbury Road. The homeowners, the Schoenecks, have been living in a hotel since July 5th, the day after the fire.

Dave Schoeneck told FOX 13 he is less worried about who set the fire and more concerned about the fuel source still next to his home.

“There’s a lot of homes, and not just homes, there’s a lot of lives that line the edge of this hazard right here, and Security National doesn’t want to do anything about it but they gotta do something about it because the hazard isn’t just gonna go away," he said.

Two months later and the Schoenecks still cannot fully move back into their home. They are still working on repairing windows and cleaning out smoke damage.

Dave Schoeneck said the gas was recently turned back on. He said firefighters told his family another 20 seconds meant the difference between the current damage and his house blowing up. The fire was burning a tree right next to the gas meter on his house.

“That’s where we’ve been concerned about it ‘cause there’s still kind of a lot of fuel," he said. "If you look over there, there’s all kinds of scrub oak, all kinds of dead grass, and it just has to be abated soon. Now if I see lightning I get nervous."

The man charged for reckless burning, Richard Otterstrom, was off the hook Friday.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office dropped the charges, seemingly to the dismay of the Cottonwood Height Police Department, who tweeted about it, saying "ask why" charges were dropped in a fire that "threatened an entire neighborhood."

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill addressed the case.

“I understand what their frustrations might be, but at the same time, they have also sort of acknowledged the underlying facts are not there and we can’t prove the case, then that’s what we have to do," he said. "We have to dismiss that."

The "underlying facts" Gill said are mainly the distance between Otterstrom's home and the origin of the fire. In a letter of intent to dismiss the charges, Gill wrote that initially investigators reported Otterstrom's home was 176.5 feet from a "no fireworks" restricted area.

The city ordinance said no aerial fireworks within 300 feet of that zone. Later, new maps showed the home was actually outside the restricted area, over 939 feet away.

“As you can imagine this has been a huge dark cloud hanging over his head. He is very happy. His wife is thrilled about this. This is a good day for them," said Otterstrom's attorney, Nathan Crane of Snow Christensen and Martineau.

To the Schoenecks, it is not about placing blame; it is about preventing fires, no matter where you are in Utah.

“It’s a desert climate," Schoeneck said. "It’s insanity. Why are you blowing off things that can burn down neighborhoods and lives? If someone lit that thing off at 3 o'clock in the morning or lightning hit at 3 o'clock in the morning with this hazard and those canyon winds, my wife and son could have died."

The Schoenecks hope to move back into their home sometime in the beginning of October. In the meantime, they said they hope the company that owns the land in question, Security National (who also owns the mortuary and cemetery on the property), will do something to mitigate the fire risks in the area.